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India: Smog causes health emergency during Merkel visit

November 1, 2019

India's pollution authority has ordered schools in the capital to shut, calling a health emergency due to smog. Pollution particles in the air have hit nine times the recommended WHO level, US Embassy figures show.

People walk on the Rajpath on a smoggy day in New Delhi
Image: Reuters/A. Fadnavis

Pollution authorities in New Delhi on Friday ordered schools to close until November 5 after air pollution levels in the Indian capital reached the "severe plus" category for the first time since January.

The Environment Pollution Authority, a panel appointed by the Supreme Court, is also to use restrictions based on odd or even car number plates to cut traffic as of Monday. Construction activity in the city region has also been banned to cut down dust production.

The smog is thought to be due to a combination of smoke caused by the use of fireworks at the Hindu Diwali festival and that from the burning of crop stubble in the surrounding region.

Readings taken at the US Embassy in New Delhi on Friday showed the level of pollution particles in the air to be nine times that recommended by the World Health Organization. The levels of particulates — particles smaller than 2.5 microns that can even enter the bloodstream — were 19 times the WHO's safe maximum.

Particulates are considered the most harmful type of air pollution, causing heart attacks and respiratory disease.

Read more: Air pollution linked to risk of 'silent' miscarriage: study

Aerial picture showing smog over New Delhi
Air pollution in New Delhi normally peaks in early NovemberImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Swarup

Face mask advice

The health emergency declared by the authority came as German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the city. She and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, declined to use the face masks recommended by doctors while inspecting troops at the presidential palace. Free masks were distributed to thousands of children on Friday.

Fourteen of the world's 15 most-polluted cities are in India, where a million people die prematurely each year of illnesses linked to smog, according to one study.

Read more: Europe air pollution caused 400,000 premature deaths

No mercy for cricketers

A cricket match between India and Bangladesh scheduled for Sunday is, however, likely to go ahead despite the pollution.

The new head of India's BCCI cricket board, Sourav Ganguly, said it was too late to cancel the match and that the pollution would anyway have a negligible effect on the game.

"I spoke to the groundsman. He says once the sun comes out, it will be fine," Ganguly, a former India captain, said.

In 2017, an international match against Sri Lanka was briefly suspended after two visiting players vomited on the pitch because of the poor air quality.

Read more: Black carbon particles found in human placentas

tj/rt (AFP, Reuters)

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