A thick blanket of toxic smog covered parts of New Delhi on Monday after millions of revelers let off firecrackers to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.The System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) said that pollution in the city of 16 million had reached the highest official category of “severe” in several districts, and warned residents to stay indoors and avoid physical activity.Concentrations of the tiny lung-clogging particulate matter known as PM2.5 were recorded above 900 micrograms per cubic meter in some parts of the city early Monday.
That’s well above the World Health Organization’s recommended mean of 25 mcg per cubic meter over a 24-hour period.”You could see and sense how the visibility had come down, and there was a choking haze all around,” said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based research organization. “Where is the plan for short- and medium-term action, and for emergency action?” she added. “We need one very urgently.”Air pollution in the Indian capital, ranked among the worst in the world, routinely spikes during winter because of the season’s weak winds and the increase in garbage fires set alight to keep people warm. Officials said the situation was also compounded this time around by the burning of spent crops in neighboring regions.The Delhi government last week announced plans to install air purifiers at major intersections in a bid to curb pollution. Authorities have also launched other initiatives, such as barring cargo trucks from entering the city and requiring drivers to buy newer cars that meet higher emissions standards.But experts say the measures have had little impact on air quality.Delhi is not alone with its pollution problems: A new report released by the UN children’s agency on Monday warned that almost one in seven children globally – around 300 million – lives in areas with the most toxic levels of outdoor air pollution. The vast majority – 220 million of them – are in northern India and other parts of South Asia.Children are particularly at risk of damaging their lungs, brains and other organs because they breathe twice as quickly as adults, taking in far more toxic air while their bodies are still developing.The UNICEF report found that around 600,000 children under the age of five die each year from diseases related to air pollution.”Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that diminish their resilience and affect their physical and cognitive development,” UNICEF Director Anthony Lake said in the report. “The impact is commensurately shocking.”