On Friday, India’s Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA) issued a report to the country’s Supreme Court that urges the closure of Delhi schools on days when air pollution hits its most dangerous levels.
The suggestion recalls the “red alert” smog warnings of Los Angeles in the 1970s, when the city experienced unhealthy levels of air pollution more than 200 days out of the year. However, Delhi is in another league altogether.
The only way to understand how bad the city’s air quality is is to compare it to Beijing, China, where coal-fueled emissions have increased lung cancer rates over 50 percent since 2002.
The health problems associated with air pollution are caused by the particulates that make up the pollution. According to the EPA, particles with diameters between 2.5 and 10 micrometers are produced by combustion activities and industrial processes and natural reactions between chemical emissions and sunlight. Particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers, known as PM2.5, pose the greatest health risks because their small size enables them to lodge deeply in human lungs.
In 2012, PM2.5 was linked to strokes, lung cancer and heart disease in China, making air pollution responsible for 670,000 premature deaths.
With all of that said, “the worst day in Beijing is really just an average day in Delhi,” according to Kristine Lofgren. Whereas Beijing’s air measures an average 227 on the PM2.5 scale, an average day in Delhi measures 473. Thus far it has not only led to illness and premature death in the country, it has also damaged 6.7 million tons of crops.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organization published a study on air pollution in 1,600 cities in 91 countries. Delhi topped the list for the highest annual average concentration of PM2.5 at 153 micrograms. The WHO’s designated safe PM2.5 concentration is 25 micrograms. A recent study by American and Indian scientists suggests that the air quality in Delhi may actually be much worse.
In its Friday report, the EPCA recommends closing kindergartens, primary and middle schools on days when air pollution is at its worst, as has become routine in China. “Such a measure is essential in Delhi,” the report states.
The report also recommends banning private transportation on such days and only allowing public transportation, cautioning that the rapid motorization taking place in the country may make the trend in declining air quality irreversible.
“It is clear that the city needs to bring urgent, drastic and long- term reforms to reduce this burden,” the authors write.
“These actions are necessary to take for combating air pollution. As yet, government response is inadequate and the burden of ill health on people, particularly the most vulnerable, is huge and unacceptable.”