Green News

Smog Chokes Delhi, Leaving Residents 'Cowering by Our Air Purifiers'

Levels of the most dangerous particles soared over the weekend in some places to more than 16 times the limit India's government considers safe.

NEW DELHI - For days, many in Delhi have been living as if under siege, trying to keep the dirty air away from their children and older parents.

But it is not easy: Open a window or a door, and the haze enters the room within seconds. Outside, the sky is white, the sun a white circle so pale that you can barely make it out. The smog is acrid, eye-stinging and throat-burning, and so thick that it is being blamed for a 70-vehicle pileup north of the city.

If in past years Delhi's roughly 20 million residents shrugged off wintertime pollution as fog, over the past week they viewed it as a crisis. Schools have been ordered closed for three days - an unprecedented measure, but not a reassuring one because experts say the concentration of pollutants inside Indian homes is typically not much lower than outside.

Levels of the most dangerous particles, called PM 2.5, reached 700 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday, and over the weekend they soared in some places to 1,000, or more than 16 times the limit India's government considers safe. The damage from sustained exposure to such high concentrations of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day, experts say.

To understand the health consequences of the dense smog that settled over India's capital over the past week, scientists are looking back decades in search of a historical precedent: to the 1952 Great Smog of London, which is believed to have caused as many as 12,000 premature deaths.

In that case, a layer of dense pollution - caused largely by emissions from burning coal - dissipated after four days, when the weather changed. But an uptick in deaths continued for weeks afterward, so shocking the public that it spurred a wave of environmental regulations.

Delhi's chief minister on Sunday announced a series of emergency measures, including a five-day moratorium on construction, a 10-day closure of a power plant and a three-day closure of about 1,800 public schools.

On Monday, the city government released a list of health guidelines, advising citizens to wash their eyes with running water and to go to a hospital if they were experiencing symptoms like "breathlessness, giddiness, chest pain and chest constriction."

But experts said mitigating the conditions would have required policies to be put in place months ago.

"These are all decent emergency measures, but they're not solving the long-term problem," said Bhargav Krishna, who manages the Public Health Foundation of India's environmental health center.

"The best we can hope for, in a way, is to plan for next year," he added. "This year is almost a washout."