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Smog Chokes Delhi, Leaving Residents ‘Cowering by Our Air Purifiers’

NEW DELHI — For days, many in Delhi have been living as if under siege, trying to keep the dirty air away from their children and older parents.

But it is not easy: Open a window or a door, and the haze enters the room within seconds. Outside, the sky is white, the sun a white circle so pale that you can barely make it out. The smog is acrid, eye-stinging and throat-burning, and so thick that it is being blamed for a 70-vehicle pileup north of the city.

If in past years, Delhi’s roughly 20 million residents shrugged off wintertime pollution as fog, over the last week they viewed it as a crisis. Schools have been ordered closed for three days — an unprecedented measure, but not a reassuring one, since experts say the concentration of pollutants inside Indian homes is typically not much lower than outside.

Levels of the most dangerous particles, called PM 2.5, reached 700 micrograms per cubic meter on Monday, and over the weekend they soared in some places to 1,000, or more than 16 times the limit India’s government considers safe. The damage from sustained exposure to such high concentrations of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day, experts say.

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A family rode a scooter during heavy smog and dust in Delhi on Sunday. Credit Harish Tyagi/European Pressphoto Agency

“There is so much smog outside that today, inside my house, I felt as someone had just burned a few sheets of paper,” said Amaan Ahuja, one of dozens who shared their families’ experiences in response to a request from The New York Times.

“You can literally see smoke in the air, and when you breathe, you can smell it, too,” he said. “We are trying to keep the kids indoors with all the windows closed.”

Another reader, Tulika Seth, described her family’s life over the past week as “unnatural and disturbing.”

Asked where she lived, she responded, “a gas chamber.”

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Construction continued on a building on Monday. Credit Dominique Faget/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To understand the health consequences of the dense smog that settled over India’s capital over the past week, scientists are looking back decades in search of a historical precedent: to the 1952 Great Smog of London, which is believed to have caused as many as 12,000 premature deaths.

In that case, a layer of dense pollution — caused largely by emissions from burning coal — dissipated after four days, when the weather changed. But an uptick in deaths continued for weeks afterward, so shocking the public that it spurred a wave of environmental regulations.

Delhi’s chief minister on Sunday announced a series of emergency measures, including a five-day moratorium on construction, a 10-day closure of a power plant and a three-day closure of about 1,800 public schools.

On Monday, the city government released a list of health guidelines, advising citizens to wash their eyes with running water and to go to a hospital if they were experiencing symptoms like “breathlessness, giddiness, chest pain and chest constriction.”

But experts said mitigating the conditions would have required policies to be put in place months ago.

Source: NYT > World

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