A PUBLIC health emergency has been declared by doctors in Delhi as air quality in the world’s most polluted capital city plunged to levels likened to smoking at least 50 cigarettes in a single day.
Toxic concentrations in the city’s air have reached levels 42 times above what is considered safe, prompting the closure of junior schools and calls for emergency measures to be implemented to curb the use of cars.
Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the city had become a “gas chamber” as residents complained of smarting eyes and irritation in the throat.
The air quality index, which measures the concentration of poisonous particulate matter in the air, hit the “severe” level of 451 on a scale where the maximum reading is 500 and where anything above 100 is considered unhealthy by the Central Pollution Control Board.
At the severe level, even healthy people will be affected while those who have existing diseases will be severely impacted, it said.
Pollutants causing the most concern are those known as fine pollutants, which are small enough to infiltrate the body’s natural defences and permeate the blood-brain barrier.
Tests by Greenpeace have shown these fine pollutants – called PM2.5 – can include carcinogenic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury. According to The Guardian, levels of PM2.5 in Delhi on Tuesday reached 710 micrograms per cubic metre, more than 11 times the World Health Organisation’s safe limit.
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“It has terrible effects on every part of your body,” said Dr Arvind Kumar, the chest surgery chairman at Sir Ganga Ram hospital. “ICUs are full of pneumonia patients. Lots of my patients are coming with coughs today. They are breathless.
“It can precipitate an acute asthma attack and in the long run it will increase their risk of lung cancer,” he said.
In some parts of Delhi, the air quality was so poor that it was beyond the maximum level, according to the US Embassy’s real-time air quality index. It stood at 999 for the RK Puram area, beyond which no readings are available.
Health professionals have called for the Delhi Half Marathon, scheduled for Nov 19, to be cancelled to protect runners and volunteers from the “disastrous health consequences.”
Bharti Airtel, the country’s top telecoms operator that sponsors the Delhi race, said it had been assured by the organisers that steps were being taken to reduce the impact of air pollution on the runners.
Salt mixed with water will be sprinkled on the entire track to ensure that dust pollution is minimal, it said. No vehicles will be allowed on the route.
But going forward, the administration would have to take steps to improve air quality, the company said in a statement.
“Air pollution poses serious health risks and it is important that these concerns are addressed urgently and appropriately by the authorities for Airtel to continue associating with the event next year and beyond,” the statement read.
A Supreme Court-appointed panel has recommended emergency measures like four times the parking fees to discourage the use of cars, and reduced metro fares to get people on public transport.
Vehicle emissions and dust from construction sites have been blamed for the spike, besides firecrackers and farm burnings. The air quality is expected to worsen in the coming days as a north-westerly wind is expected to bring smog from the burning of stubble of wheat and other grain in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana.
Additional reporting by Reuters