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  • Grace Halepsis

Hazardous Air Quality in Delhi

Courtesy of BBC

While Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world, air quality conditions have been exceptionally high during the first few weeks of November. Reaching a record of 1092 of pollutant PM2.5, Delhi remains 81 times more exposed to PM2.5 concentration than the World Health Organization annual air quality guidelines recommended, according to the IQ Air Index .

How bad is the air quality in Delhi?

Defining particles of PM2.5 as pollutants measuring 2.5 microns or less, these fine pieces of particulate matter have been causing a myriad of health problems across the city. Previously healthy civilians have been experiencing extensive eye and throat irritation, rapid breathing, and asthma. PM2.5 is also known for causing lung cancer when inhaled, and around 30,000 Dehlities die every year from health conditions related to the pollutant. Since the smog is so severe, Delhi government officials recommend citizens avoid outdoor activities, close windows, run air purifiers, and wear a mask if going outside is necessary.

How exactly did air quality get this dangerous in Delhi?

The air quality in Delhi is heightened right now due to a variety of economic, cultural, and geographical reasons. One of the main agitators of air pollution within India currently is the start of the “Parali” season. During this time, farmers burn leftover crops from prior harvest to clear cultivation for the next agricultural season (IQ Air). Delhi rests within India’s “breadbasket” and most commonly endures the burning of wheat in summer and rice from October to November (IQ Air). Farmers burn the rice residue to prepare for the next sow, sticking to this method due to its convenience and cost-effectiveness (IQ Air). According to Nature, twenty percent of PM2.5 in Delhi was from crop burning. Also occurring within the early weeks of November is the Hindu celebration Diwali, where tradition calls for a multitude of fireworks shows, giving rise to toxic metal ions. This, combined with regular pollution from low-grade automobiles and the city’s large industrial sector, creates the perfect storm for pollutants to become airborne. On top of these lifestyle implications, Delhi remains geographically stunted from receiving quality airflow. Situated on a flat plain in the middle of the Himalayas, the mountain air traps pollutants at ground level during the colder months, creating smoke buildup.

What has the Punjab government done to combat the rise in air pollution?

Aware of the matters facing all who live in Delhi, the government has tried implementing restrictions and bans on actions within their control. After Diwali, an immediate ban was placed on all kinds of firecrackers within the city. Delhi has also placed restrictions on vehicles, implementing an odd and even rule. Citizens with plates ending in odd numbers drive on specific dates, while vehicles with plates ending in even numbers drive on the remaining dates. While a solution to limiting air pollutants, the idea was proven flawed by not including motorcycle usage within the restricted vehicles, a large portion of pollution within the city. Prior to this unparalleled pollution outbreak, the government installed smog towers in 2021 to help reduce chemical smog with air purifiers. However, these towers have had minimal impact given they are situated within an open atmosphere environment, rather than a closed system. In terms of regulating crop burning, India’s National Clean Air Program, or INCAP, was founded in 2019 to limit the spread of PM2.5 within agriculture. As part of the Punjab provincial government’s last-ditch attempt to combat stubble burning, violators of the program face punishments as severe as fines or jail time. However, the government has been slow to hold farmers accountable to these standards, and many complain they cannot afford to be environmentally conscious in removing waste. Punjab’s response to this was the distribution of stubble-removing machines, yet only a few were implemented into circulation.

How can Delhites stay safe from increasing air pollution?

While air quality in Delhi continues to worsen, there are a few actions civilians can take to care for themselves. It is recommended that residents remain indoors for the majority of the day, especially people who are grouped into the “at risk” health category. If going outdoors is not an option, then an N95 or KN95 mask is needed to safely travel within the city. Professionals recommend using air cleaners within homes to reduce particulate matter, such as portable air conditioners and stand-alone fans. Central air conditioning should be switched to an “on” system for constant filtration and residents should think about switching to a high-efficiency filter such as with a MERV 13 rank or better. Smoking is not recommended while enduring bad air quality, given it only intensifies health conditions related to breathing. All citizens should prioritize hydration and avoid hardcore exercise.

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