Doctors Announce Public Emergency As Delhi Is Smothered In Smog

Smog is not uncommon, as this image from last year attests, but it has been particularly bad this week. Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

This week the air pollution in Delhi has reached such catastrophic levels that doctors in the city have announced a public health emergency. People are being told to stay indoors as the stagnant air and cold temperatures have driven up the levels of particulates to such a degree that in some parts of the capital they are literally off the scale.

As the government met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the growing crisis, the Delhi chief minister described the streets as a “gas chamber”. The smog is already taking its toll on the city as roads, railways, and airports are being disrupted, and children told not to go to school. A half marathon that is due to take place in Delhi might well have to be canceled due to the potentially damaging health effects.

The air pollution currently blanketing the city in some areas has a recorded Air Quality Index maximum of 999, meaning that it could well be higher. This, suggests Dr Arvind Kumar who is a chest surgeon at Sir Ganga Ram hospital, is equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes in just one day.

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“It has terrible effects on every part of your body,” Dr Kumar told The Guardian. “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.”

While it's not unknown for India, and in particular Delhi, to suffer such massive waves of air pollution, it seems that the climatic conditions at the moment have just compounded the situation. The nation still relies heavily on fossil fuels, particularly heavily polluting coal. But there is also a significant problem with wood burning stoves, which in many households are still the main way of cooking. The wood smoke contains significantly high levels of particulates, such as soot, which can cause serious respiratory problems when breathed in.

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Levels of certain particulates known as PM2.5 have been found to be around 710 micrograms per cubic meter this week, or roughly 11 times the safe limit recommended by the World Health Organization. 

Earlier reports have shown that simply living in Delhi, and breathing in the heavily polluted air, is enough to cut your life expectancy by a really shocking nine years.

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