Delhi smog causes public health emergency

A street cleaner works in heavy smog in Delhi, India, on November 10, 2017. Source: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

DELHI is facing a public health emergency over its air pollution. Readings of the air quality index have detected that in some parts of the city, the pollution level is at 451. This is nine times higher than the recommended level and dangerously close to hitting 500, the highest possible reading.

The Central Pollution Board (CPCB) have recorded the pollution as “severe” and prompted healthcare professionals to issue a “public health emergency” warning, urging people not to venture out in the smog.

Cooling temperatures in the region and slow winds are said to have caused these nearly immeasurable airborne pollutants.

Residents in the city were warned against leaving their homes, schools were shut until further notice and planes have been delayed and canceled.

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The Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal said the city was like a “gas chamber”. The smog has been likened to smoking 50 cigarettes, which is enough to make anyone ill in itself. However, more worrying is the type of pollutant that is floating through the air.

Tests carried out by Greenpeace show some of the nasties in the air are smaller than 2.5 micrometers, which is small enough to penetrate the body’s natural filters, including the blood-brain barrier.

These pollutants known as PM2.5 can carry dangerous chemicals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury.

Outdoor workers are most affected by the infiltration of the smog. “My eyes get a burning sensation. I fell sick last year,” Vikas Yadav, an immigrant worker from Bihar state, told The Guardian. “I don’t know whether it was from the air, but I felt breathless and my eyes were itching. Doctors told me not to work early morning during winters.”

A few fortunate residents can use air purifiers and seal doors and windows to prevent the PM2.5 pollutants from entering their dwelling. However, many Indian workers live on around US$1 per day so expensive devices are out of the question.

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Methods to reduce air pollution

Air pollution in Delhi is a common sight. A high volume of old cars kicking out fumes, combined with coal burning stations and industrial emissions, makes India one of the worst polluted countries in the world, closely followed by China, Egypt and Mongolia

Pollution-lessening strategies were implemented in the past. Shutting down coal-fired stations, banning fire-crackers in the months of Diwali festivities and reducing traffic flow in the city, have all been tested.

However, the bigger picture revolves around finding solutions to countless sources of pollutions from other Indian states. Environmental laws across India are often not enforced.

The Delhi half-marathon, sponsored by Airtel, is also in jeopardy due to the smog. Organizers have said the race will take place as planned on November 19, but citizens are concerned.

The sponsors said they had received “a lot of feedback from our customers and citizens at large expressing concern on holding the marathon in view of the prevailing air pollution in the city”.