Health emergency declared as pollution soars in Delhi

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The Indian capital was enveloped by a shroud of toxic smog on Tuesday, forcing the Indian Medical Association to declare a public health emergency and advised schools to be shut.

Air pollution in India

“This is a public health emergency, so everyone should stay indoors, no jogging, running or walking outside,” said Dr Krishan Kumar Aggarwal, the head of the Indian Medical Association (IMA).

On Tuesday morning, the US embassy air pollution tracker said levels of PM2.5, tiny particulate matter that enters deep into the lungs and bloodstream, reached 703, which is double the mark of 300 that authorities deem as hazardous.

“This is like heavy rain of PM 2.5. In heavy rain, you don’t venture out,” he told reporter.

At 1pm local time, the tracker showed AQI (air quality index) at 728, a level that leaves even healthy people at risk of serious respiratory problems.

Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, was quick to comment on the worsening pollution situation in the capital. “Delhi has become a gas chamber,” he tweeted.

“Every year this happens during this part of year. We have to find a solution to crop burning in adjoining states,” he said referring to smoke caused by the burning of crops in the northern Indian states near Delhi.

Children and elderly are more at risk, warned Dr Aggarwal barely a week after a report by science journal Lancet said half a million Indians died prematurely due to PM2.5.

“The government must take all appropriate measures so that schools are shut and people don’t have to go outside. People suffering from respiratory conditions might feel worse, this might even induce a heart attack in patients with pre-existing heart problems,” Aggarwal told Al Jazeera.

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The Delhi government followed through, as it announced closure of schools from Wednesday.

By 10am on Tuesday, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) recorded “severe” air quality, meaning the intensity of pollution was extreme. The last time air had turned “severe’” was on October 20, a day after Diwali festivities. Since then, the CPCB pollution monitors have been recording “very poor” air quality, which is comparatively better than “severe” but alarming as per global standards.

“My 12 year-old son suffers from asthma. He woke up with breathing problems in the morning today. He is coughing as well,” says Vidya, a 45-year-old woman who lives in the slum village of Tughlaqabad in south Delhi.

Doctors at the IMA have also asked the city’s biggest running race, the Delhi Half Marathon, scheduled on November 19 to be cancelled.

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