Health emergency declared in Delhi as pollution hits year’s worst

Published November 2, 2019
COMMUTERS make their way along a street in smoggy conditions.—AFP
COMMUTERS make their way along a street in smoggy conditions.—AFP

NEW DELHI: Authorities in New Delhi declared a public health emergency on Friday and closed schools and all construction activity until next week as air pollution in the city hit its worst level this year.

A thick haze has hung over the Indian capital this week caused by plumes of toxic smoke from farm fires raging in neighbouring states.

An index measuring the level of a deadly air pollutant hit 484 on a scale of 500 on Friday, the government’s Central Pollution Control Board, the worst this year.

The index measures the level of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that goes deep into the lungs. Anything above 400 poses a risk for people with respiratory illnesses and can also affect even those with healthy lungs.

Some companies advised employees to avoid exposure to toxic air and work from home.

“We have been advised to stay at home on Monday,” said Anuj Rawat, an account director at Kantar, the market research arm of British advertising major WPP. Kantar employs around 400 people at its office in New Delhi, Rawat said.

The Environment Pollution Control Authority, which is leading the effort to tackle Delhi’s pollution, said: “We have to take this as a public health emergency as air pollution is now hazardous and will have adverse health impacts on all, but particularly our children.” It banned all construction work in the sprawling metropolis of 20 million people and its neighbouring cities until Nov 5.

Each year, farmers in the states of Punjab and Haryana burn crop residue to prepare for the sowing season, ignoring government warnings.

According to government-run monitor SAFAR, satellite pictures had captured nearly 3,200 incidents of stubble burning on Thursday in Haryana and Punjab that contributed to 44 percent percent of Delhi’s pollution.

The toxic air has left several Bangladeshi cricket players with sore throats and itchy eyes ahead of their Twenty20 match against India on Sunday.

“Government knew an emergency situation was approaching and did not take substantive steps on stubble burning or big industrial polluting sources,” said Sunil Dahiya, an energy and air pollution analyst at Greenpeace.

“A public health emergency situation began at least 10 days ago.”

Schools shut because of toxic smog

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal offered free masks on Friday and ordered schools shut till Nov 5 to protect children.

Air pollution in New Delhi generally peaks around Nov 1 due to a combination of smog from fireworks set of during a Hindu festival and smoke from the burning of agricultural fields in the neighboring states.

The air quality index reading at the US Embassy in New Delhi for pollution particles in the air reached nine times the recommended WHO level on Friday. At such levels people are advised to avoid all outdoor exertion due to the health risks.

New Delhi’s top elected official Arvind Kejriwal already has announced a plan to restrict the movement of private cars in the capital for nearly two weeks, beginning Monday.

Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2019

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