Levels of pollution in New Delhi, India's capital, are notoriously bad – so bad, in fact, that anti-smog helicopters have actually been grounded in the past.
Yesterday, concentrations of PM 2.5 pollution climbed to 440 on the air quality index overseen by the state-run Central Pollution Control Board, up from 430 the previous day and exceeding the 450 record for 2018. In some areas of the city, concentration levels were even higher (500).
For the record, the US government recommends limits do not exceed 35 and anything above 300 is considered "hazardous".
Pollution in Delhi – and India more generally – is a long-running problem. According to a World Health Organization (WHO) report published last year, six of the top 10 most polluted cities worldwide can be found in India, with Delhi coming in sixth place. The health impact of this pollution can be so extreme, it is estimated to knock nine years from the life expectancy of people living in the city.
It stems from a toxic combination of diesel fuel-burning vehicles, construction site dust, coal-fired power plant emissions, and the burning of crops and garbage. All this pollution can be made worse by sharp drops in temperature and wind speed.
PM 2.5 (fine particulate matter) is a particularly worrying type of air pollution. These particles – which at their largest are roughly 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair – are able to travel deep into the respiratory tract, where they can cause eye, nose, throat, and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and shortness of breath as well as more long-term (and more serious) complications, including chronic bronchitis, heart disease, and lung cancer. The New York Department of Health reports that multiple studies have linked frequent PM 2.5 exposure to increases in respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits, and deaths.
In the past, the government has adopted a range of solutions from a temporary ban on construction activities to asking residents to wear face masks. But critics argue that attempts to curb Delhi's pollution have been half-hearted, limited by a lack of willpower and actual power.
Perhaps one of the more inventive solutions was the decision to use firefighters to sprinkle the city with water, reported by Associated Press in December last year. The idea being that the water released from high-rise buildings would help settle the dust and prevent garbage fires from starting.
"Delhi’s air quality, when we say improvement, what we notice is that it falls from severe to very poor days. None of the days are good, satisfactory or even moderately polluted," Vivek Chattopadhyaya, a senior program manager with New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, told Associated Press.
"We need to meet the quality standards, which are the safest standards for the people to breathe air. So that should be our target."