India capital chokes on toxic smog after Diwali

It came on the same day that another United Nations body reported how some 300 million children live with outdoor air so polluted it can cause serious physical damage — including to their lungs, brains and other organs.

An Indian boy wearing a face mask cycles in smog, one day after the Diwali festival, in New Delhi, India, on October 31, 2016. According to a news report, hundreds of people faced breathing problem and poor visibility due to heavy smog after fireworks set off during the Diwali festival in Delhi have worsened the pollution problem. Rajat Gupta/EPA
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NEW DELHI // New Delhi was shrouded in a thick blanket of toxic smog on Monday after millions of Indians lit firecrackers to mark the Diwali festival, with authorities reporting record levels of pollution in parts of the capital.

The reading for pollutants in the atmosphere breached the 1,000 microgram mark for the first time in one neighbourhood in south Delhi — 10 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended level.

It came on the same day that another United Nations body reported how some 300 million children live with outdoor air so polluted it can cause serious physical damage — including to their lungs, brains and other organs. The situation is most acute in South Asia.

Gufran Beig, chief scientist at India’s state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (Safar), said needles on monitors in the RK Puram neighbourhood had flickered briefly past the 1,000 level late on Sunday night at the finale of a frenzy of fireworks.

The levels had subsided through the night but were still running at more than 500 in several districts across the capital by afternoon.

“Almost 60-70 per cent of the smoke came from the firecrackers,” said Mr Beig, who said the situation had been widely expected given that Diwali is always one of the worst periods for pollution.

“My eyes are irritated, I’m coughing and I find it difficult to breathe,” said 18-year-old Delhi student Dharmendra, who uses only one name as is common in India. Due to the pollution, “I don’t go out so much nowadays.” In a health advisory on its website, Safar said there was a “serious risk” of respiratory problems for people living in Delhi and all outdoor physical activity should be avoided.

People with heart or lung disease, older adults and children should stay indoors and keep activity levels low, it added.

Levels of pollution traditionally surge over Diwali but the situation this year had been worsened by high levels of moisture in the air and the burning of agricultural residue by farmers on the outskirts of the capital or in neighbouring states, Mr Beig added.

A new study by the UN’s children’s fund Unicef reported Monday that nearly one in seven children around the globe breathes outdoor air at least six times dirtier than international guidelines.

“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs. They can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains and, thus, their futures,” said Anthony Lake, executive director of Unicef.

Children face much higher health risks from air pollution than adults as they breathe twice as quickly, taking in more air in relation to their body weight, while their brains and immune systems are still developing and vulnerable.

“No society can afford to ignore air pollution.”

New Delhi’s air quality has steadily worsened over the years, a consequence of rapid urbanisation that brings pollution from diesel engines, coal-fired power plants and industrial emissions.

It also suffers from atmospheric dust, burning of crop stubble in farms around the city and pollution from open fires lit by the urban poor to keep warm in winter or to cook food.

Delhi authorities have responded with a series of measures, including driving restrictions earlier this year that took around a million cars off the roads for two weeks and a ban on old lorries from entering the city.

Last week the city government also announced plans to install air purifiers and a mist-making device at major intersections to curb choking pollution.

But expert Anumita Roychowdhury said more needs to be done to tackle Delhi’s post-Diwali air.

“Diwali’s effect will stay for a while now thanks to all the firecrackers’ chemicals and heavy metals released into the already-aggravated air,” said Ms Roychowdhury, from the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.

“There’s been a decline in the use of firecrackers and there have been measures to cut [smog] down, but the change is not big enough. We need to do a lot more,” she said, suggesting a strict licensing policy on sales and a gradual phase-out of firecrackers.

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press