Delhi shuts schools as smog sparks health ‘emer­gency’

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The sick­en­ing air pol­lu­tion that led the In­dian cap­i­tal to shut schools and con­struc­tion sites this week has prompted sim­i­lar mea­sures in nearby cities. Of­fi­cials in the north­ern state of Ut­tar Pradesh said yes­ter­day that they ex­pect the acrid smog to blan­ket the state within days.

For more than a week, New Delhi’s skies have been filled with a thick haze that has made peo­ple’s eyes st­ing and their throats sore. Air pol­lu­tion ex­perts blame myr­iad pol­lu­tion sources, from diesel-burn­ing cars and sea­sonal crop burn­ing to garbage fires and stoves fu­eled with kerosene and cow dung. Win­ter weather pat­terns also mean there is less wind to cir­cu­late the air. The smog “re­mains in the lower at­mo­spheric layer,” said Dr Surya Kant Tri­pathi, who heads the pul­monary medicine depart­ment at King Ge­orge’s Med­i­cal Uni­ver­sity in Lucknow, the cap­i­tal of Ut­tar Pradesh.

He urged peo­ple to avoid go­ing out­doors, un­less wear­ing face masks. “Higher air pol­lu­tion lev­els may take days to set­tle,” he said. Lucknow city di­rec­tor JP Gupta said the same smog cov­er­ing New Delhi was waft­ing over west­ern parts of Ut­tar Pradesh and would soon cover the en­tire state, In­dia’s most pop­u­lous, with around 210 mil­lion peo­ple. In the Ut­tar Pradesh dis­trict of Ghazi­abad, con­sid­ered an east­ern sub­urb of New Delhi, schools were or­dered closed along with those in the cap­i­tal on Mon­day and Tues­day, af­ter which Ut­tar Pradesh of­fi­cials said they would re­assess the sit­u­a­tion.

There are no of­fi­cial air pol­lu­tion mon­i­tors set up in the Delhi sub­ur­ban ar­eas, but in both New Delhi and Lucknow, the lev­els of PM2.5 - the tiny par­tic­u­late mat­ter that can clog lungs - were at least above 400 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic me­ter on Mon­day. That’s more than 40 times what’s con­sid­ered safe by the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, and more than six times the limit set by In­dian law. Some mon­i­tor­ing points were reg­is­ter­ing lev­els much higher.

New Delhi has also or­dered the tem­po­rary clo­sure of a nearby coal-burn­ing power plant, as well as con­struc­tion and de­mo­li­tion sites blamed for send­ing huge plumes of fine dust par­ti­cles into the air. It also or­dered that roads be doused with wa­ter to set­tle dust, and banned diesel-pow­ered elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tors for 10 days ex­cept at hos­pi­tals and cell­phone tow­ers. Lev­els be­tween 301 and 500 are clas­si­fied as “haz­ardous”, mean­ing ev­ery­one faces a risk of res­pi­ra­tory ef­fects and should stay in­doors, while lev­els above 500 are be­yond the of­fi­cial in­dex.

Manan Ma­hato, who drives an auto rick­shaw in Delhi, said he had sent his chil­dren to his na­tive vil­lage be­cause he was wor­ried about their health. “It has be­come risky to stay in Delhi be­cause of the pol­lu­tion,” he said, hold­ing a hand­ker­chief over his mouth be­cause he can­not af­ford a proper face mask. “I am send­ing my chil­dren back to the vil­lage as I am wor­ried for their health. If it stays like this, I think this city won’t be live­able any­more.”

On Sun­day hun­dreds of peo­ple, many wear­ing face masks, gath­ered in cen­tral Delhi to de­mand im­me­di­ate ac­tion to curb the pol­lu­tion lev­els, cur­rently around 30 times the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s rec­om­mended PM2.5 safe limit of 25 mi­cro­grams per cu­bic me­ter of air.

‘Emer­gency sit­u­a­tion’

Long queues formed out­side shops sell­ing face masks, a rel­a­tively novelty in Delhi as are the air pu­ri­fiers that now fea­ture in the homes of wealthy res­i­dents. The Delhi gov­ern­ment said it was con­sid­er­ing cloud-seed­ing to pro­duce rain, a tech­nique Bei­jing used to clear the air be­fore the 2008 Olympic Games.

An­u­mita Roy­chowd­hury, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at the Delhi-based Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment, said the city faced an “emer­gency sit­u­a­tion”. “These tem­po­rary emer­gency mea­sures are crit­i­cal for bringing down the peak pol­lu­tion lev­els,” she said. “Of course this can­not be per­ma­nent, you can­not keep peo­ple in­doors for­ever,” she added.

— AFP

NEW DELHI: In­dian com­muters jour­ney along a main road as smog en­velops the In­dian cap­i­tal.

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