On Tuesday morning in New Delhi, the capital of India, a thick white haze was draped across the city, causing severe damage to thousands of city residents. Doctors in New Delhi reported a surge in patients complaining of chest pain, breathlessness and burning eyes.
The poor air quality readings in the Indian capital have reached frightening levels in recent days, at one point topping the 1,000 mark on the U.S. embassy air quality index. For context, the World Health Organization considers anything above 25 to be unsafe.
The measure of air pollution is based on the concentration of fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, per cubic meter. According to CNN, “The microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, are considered particularly harmful because they are small enough to lodge deep into the lungs and pass into other organs, causing serious health risks.”
Breathing in air with a PM 2.5 content of between 950 to 1,000 has been reported to be roughly equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes a day, according to the independent Berkeley Earth science research group.
While many initially viewed the white haze as a mild irritant, by mid-week the sickening effects of the air pollution and its far-reaching effects were made clear, and the city was forced to deal with the consequences.
The haze reduced visibility in the city badly, forcing trains to be cancelled, planes to be delayed, and cars to plow into each other. Multiple traffic accidents were reported across the city, and the prevailing sense in New Delhi is that the city is under siege.
By Tuesday afternoon, New Delhi officials had closed all public and private schools, stating that the city’s tens of thousands of school-aged children should remain indoors. On Wednesday, city officials banned incoming trucks and halted civil construction projects. On Thursday, the city announced new plans to begin implementing a partial ban on private car use as soon as the following week. New Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has described the city as “a gas chamber.”
The pollution in New Delhi is composed of a mixture of vehicle exhaust, smoke from garbage fires and crop burning, and road dust. Many city residents have resorted to wearing masks to filter their intake, and air purifiers are also being purchased in rising quantities. Burning sage indoors and salt lamps are other measures known to improve air quality.