India smog: ‘Drastic’ air pollution in New Delhi which closed down schools and sparked fears of lockdown
The health impact of breathing in the smog that is blanketing the capital city in India is worse than smoking more than 20 cigarettes a day, but despite warnings from experts the air quality in New Delhi continues to worsen every year.
Air pollution remained extremely high in the Indian capital on Thursday, a day after authorities closed schools and shut some coal-burning power stations to reduce smog that has covered the city for most of the month.
Karn Vohra, an air quality researcher at University College London (UCL), had experienced the smog in his hometown of Gurugram, southwest of New Delhi, before he relocated to the UK in 2017.
He told i: “It’s so hazy, we didn’t see daylight for almost a week.
“It not only impacts the human health, it reduces visibility. You can’t even see the building right in front of your house.
“The air is so filled with these particles that it causes irritation, you feel that something is stuck in your throat.”
New Delhi’s air quality remained “very poor”, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR), India’s main environmental monitoring agency.
The concentration of tiny airborne particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM 2.5, which is about one sixth the diameter of human hair, neared 300 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the city.
The World Health Organisation guidelines states the maximum safe level is 25.
The tiny particles can lodge in the lungs and cause respiratory problems, while the long-term effects can include heart disease.
Mr Vohra said the smog is a seasonal event which happens during October and November.
This time of year, the mostly Hindu population celebrate Diwali, the festival of light, with firecrackers and fireworks. PM 2.5 levels in New Delhi can reach 999 micrograms per cubic metre.
For comparison, Mr Vohra said smoking one cigarette is similar to being exposed to 667 micrograms per metre cube.
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Also at this time of the year farmers in nearby states burn crop residue to make room for the next season, of which the smoke contributes between 30-40 per cent of the smog in New Delhi, Mr Vohra said.
These factors combined with emissions from vehicles and industries, dust from the roads and construction sites and waste being openly burned created a “cocktail of pollutants”. The number of vehicles in New Delhi has also been increasing, more than doubling in the last two decades as the population keeps growing.
“The weather conditions play a very significant role. There is very low wind speed so pollutants can’t dissipate to other areas, and there’s no rainfall so no precipitation to wash out the PM 2.5,” he added.
Mr Vohra said studies between 2005 and 2018 have shown PM 2.5 levels increasing by 2.5 per cent every year in New Delhi, describing it as a “very drastic increase”.
In the same time period in London, he said there was a “significant decline” in PM 2.5 levels which decreased by 2.2 per cent every year.
“Because of this increasing trend in Delhi that we’ve seen in 14 years, the baseline keeps increasing. It’s going to further aggravate the situation, it’s how it keeps getting worse every year,” he said.
“If nothing happens to control the emissions from vehicles and industries, if the future is mimicking the past, then it will keep building up every year.”
Mr Vohra said studies have also shown that almost one in every three deaths in India is from PM 2.5 from fossil fuels, accounting for 2.5 million deaths.
This figure is based on PM 2.5 levels from 2012, which Mr Vohra said is “quite conservative” and that the number of deaths could be much higher now.
New Delhi, a city of 20 million, is one of the world’s most polluted cities, according to real-time data from the Swiss air quality monitoring company IQAir, with Lahore in Pakistan topping the list with “hazardous” levels of air pollution as of Thursday.
The New Delhi state government is considering whether to lock down the capital after India’s Supreme Court sought an “imminent and emergency” action plan last week to tackle the crisis.
On Wednesday, schools were closed indefinitely and employees were asked to allow half of their staff to work from home for a week.
Some coal-based power stations outside New Delhi were ordered to shut down and construction activities were halted.
An expert warned the health impact of the smog covering the Indian capital is worse than smoking 20 cigarettes a day