The oxygen business thrives as Delhi chokes on smog

An oxygen bar has doubled its clientele as Indian air pollution reaches record levels in the city

Customers inhaling clean air using a cannula strapped to their nostrils at Oxy Pure, an oxygen bar at Select Citywalk mall in New Delhi on Saturday. Taniya Dutta for The National
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With a cannula strapped to his nostrils, Vikas Bangar inhaled ‘lemongrass’ scented oxygen at a tiny bar in a swanky mall in New Delhi.

The 30-year-old rookie film producer landed in the capital city from Mumbai and rushed to an ‘oxygen’ bar to breathe in the gas as the air quality in the capital city dropped to record levels in the past two weeks.

“When you are in Delhi, this session is a must,” Mr Bangar said..

“I landed here at 6.00 am today. At first, I thought it was foggy but soon I realised it was polluted air. Everything outside was blurry. My eyes were burning, even inside the airport.”

Mr Bangar is among scores of people who are readily spending $4 to get a hit of unpolluted air for 15 minutes at the Oxy Pure oxygen bar as Delhi battles with worst pollution crisis since 2016 when Air Quality Index (AQI) levels were over five times the safe standards considered by World Health Organisation.

Around 46 million residents of the city have been gasping for fresh air with AQI levels hovering in the “emergency” to ‘hazardous’ levels since November 3.

On Thursday, the crisis became so severe that the state government shut all primary schools for the second time this month.

Authorities were forced to announce a public health emergency and launch a controversial vehicle rationing scheme for ten days after levels of PM 2.5 - the particulate matter that penetrates through the lungs into the bloodstream - in the air surpassed 999 micrograms in many locations earlier this month.

The World Health Organisation places the safe limit at 25 micrograms.

“I am feeling lighter. I can feel the aroma in my body,” said Bangar after inhaling the gas.

At Select Citywalk, an upscale shopping mall in south Delhi, curious shoppers gaze at four fluorescent bubbling beakers that shine through the window of Oxy Pure.

Despite giving a fresh shot of healthy air in the style of an  intensive-care-unit complete with a nasal cannula and staff donning white coats, the 100 square-foot bar doesn’t feel like a clinic.

A customer inhaling clean air using a cannula strapped at their nostrils at Oxy Pure, an oxygen bar at Select Citywalk mall in New Delhi on Saturday. Taniya Dutta for The National

It has bright lights, a floor-to-ceiling garden installation and water fountain.

"I wanted it to be a fun experience for people and not have a clinic vibe," Aryavir Kumar, the man behind Oxy Pure told The National.

At the bar, customers inhale clean, aromatic oxygen through a cannula that they strap under their nostrils, which is connected to an oxygen concentrator machine - sourced from the US - that spins oxygen purified from the air around it.

They are given seven options of fragrances to whiff, including lavender, orange, eucalyptus, and cinnamon. The unique experience is only for adults between 18 to 65 years of age.

Capitalising on the wealth of news coverage on Delhi’s deteriorating air quality, the bar is even offering a ‘pollution special’ - five sessions for the price of four.

“The machine purifies the air around us into 95 per cent oxygen while the air we breathe has 21 per cent oxygen. This is why the session is for 15 minutes, it could be harmful otherwise,” Mr Aryavir says.

The 26-year-old businessman, whose family owns a hospitality company, opened the bar with his friend Margarita Kuritsyna, 25, from Ukraine, in May this year after a visit to an oxygen bar in Las Vegas.

Although the business did not make much profit initially, Mr Aryavir said the footfall at the bar has increased twofold in the past two weeks.

“Air pollution is going to dangerous levels so people are coming here to breathe pure oxygen,” he said.

“When we opened the bar, people found it strange. They would ask if the fluorescent waters in the beakers were for drinking. It was a new concept.

“We would get 15-20 people a day. Now we are getting 30-40 customers every day. There is a tremendous increase in the numbers of customers in the last two weeks.”

Doctors in the capital and adjoining cities have been reporting a surge of patients with severe respiratory problems, lung issues, pneumonia and chest pain in the last few weeks.

But several ministers have trivialised the issue, including India’s Health Minister Harsh Vardhan who advised people to eat carrots to fight any harmful effects of pollution.

There has also been deadly silence from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is yet to acknowledge the alarming situation despite several students appealing to him to take steps to ensure they could breathe clean air.

On Friday, his office set up a panel to look into the precarious situation but a high-level parliamentary meeting to discuss the hazardous air pollution was cancelled because only four out of 29 officials attended.

A staff member attending a customer at Oxy Pure, an oxygen bar at Select Citywalk mall in New Delhi on Saturday. Taniya Dutta for The National

In the absence of a concrete plan from the government to control air pollution, distressed residents say they are desperately looking for preventive measures such as air purifiers, anti-pollution masks and now the oxygen bar to stay healthy.

But the effects of inhaling oxygen in this way have not been proven.

"There is no scientific research which shows that breathing pure oxygen for short period of time is beneficial, said Dr Vikas Maurya,  Additional Director and head of the Pulmonology department at Fortis Hospital.

"All healthy individuals only require that much oxygen which is sufficiently obtained from atmosphere and the body is 99 per cent saturated with that much amount of oxygen.

"As health professionals, we cannot ethically or morally support providing oxygen therapy to those who do not require it. It may even be harmful to the patient like COPD for whom giving extra oxygen can cause a loss of respiratory drive and result in carbon dioxide retention in their body, which can lead to emergency hospitalisation.

Karanjit Singh, 40, who has lived all his life in Delhi, is horrified with the severe pollution situation that has dramatically worsened over the last few years.

“Look at the environment in Delhi, we are gasping for pure oxygen. With the kind of pollution, we require more such bars in India,” he said.

“When I was a kid, there were less people, less vehicles and less construction.

“But now, pollution has spiked. The government needs to be proactive and need to stop farm (stubble) fires. They need to improve things otherwise it is going to keep getting worse.”

For Mr Aryavir, who is delighted with the sudden positive response to Oxy Pure, it is an opportunity to open another location at the city’s international airport.

“People ask me, now we have to buy oxygen?

“But 30 years ago no one would have thought of buying mineral water.

“I believe the bar is not reducing pollution from the air and it is not a permanent solution to pollution.

“But it is giving some relief to the people and if we keep polluting the environment, things like these will keep popping up,” he said.