While the smog-shrouded skyline of Beijing has received considerable attention in recent years, the rapidly worsening air quality in the Indian capital of Delhi has officials calling for drastic measures to address the growing public health emergency. In a new report submitted to the Supreme Court on Friday, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority urged the court to order all schools in Delhi closed on days when air pollution levels pose a threat to public health. The report also called for new restrictions on vehicles, such as increasing the tax on diesel cars and banning all private vehicles on high air pollution days, the Daily Mail reported.
“These actions are necessary to take for combating air pollution. As yet, government response is inadequate and the burden of ill health on people, particularly the most vulnerable, is huge and unacceptable,” the report stated.
A World Health Organization study of 1,600 cities found that Delhi’s annual average concentration of PM2.5 — small, airborne particles like soot — was 153 micrograms, the highest of any city in the world. Patna, another Indian city, was close behind with an average of 149 micrograms. The WHO’s “safe” limit for PM2.5 concentrations is 25 micrograms.
These small particles, the result of combustion from vehicles, power plants, and other industrial activities, pose a particularly severe threat to public health because they can lodge deep in the lungs and can penetrate the bloodstream, causing lung cancer and heart disease. A 2013 report by the WHO’s Global Burden of Disease project linked more than 1.2 million premature deaths in China to PM2.5 pollution, and a WHO analysis released in April estimated that outdoor air pollution was responsible for the deaths of approximately 3.7 million people under the age of 60 in 2012.
While the WHO’s findings are troubling for India, a new study from U.S. and Indian scientists suggests that the air quality in New Delhi is even worse than previous estimates. Riding around the city in an autorickshaw equipped with air pollution monitors, the scientists found that air pollution levels on the road were up to eight times higher than urban background readings, the Associated Press reported.
“Official air quality monitors tend to be located away from roads, on top of buildings, and that’s not where most people spend most of their time,” researcher Joshua Apte told the AP. “In fact, most people spend a lot of time in traffic in India. Sometimes one, two, three hours a day.”
During rush hour, Apte and his team found that PM2.5 levels were 50 percent higher than ambient air quality readings; levels of black carbon were three times higher and ultrafine particles were more than eight times higher, “so high that Apte’s equipment broke when he initially tried to measure it.”
While China has launched its “war on smog” and recently agreed to a landmark deal with the U.S. that entails peaking its carbon emissions by 2030 or earlier and deploying a massive amount of renewable energy, critics say the Indian government has been far less willing to address its air pollution problems. On Wednesday, the country’s environmental court ordered a series of measures to address Delhi’s severe pollution, including all cars more than 15 years old taken off the city’s roads, air purifiers installed at the crowded markets and a crackdown on the burning of trash, the Guardian reported.
In its ruling the National Green Tribunal criticized Prime Minister Naendra Modi’s government for a lack of action to address Delhi’s dangerous pollution, stating, “nothing substantive has been suggested … for providing and controlling air pollution in Delhi primarily resulting from vehicular pollution and burning of plastics and other materials in (the) open.”
With vehicle ownership in India projected to grow from 140 million in 2011 to 400 million by 2040, the government will need to take serious measures to address the resultant air pollution. If vehicle trends and fuel and emissions standards continue in India, it could lead to a three-fold increase in PM2.5 levels and a five-fold increase in NOx — poisonous, highly reactive gases emitted by cars and trucks — according to a new study by the Energy and Resources Institute, University of California, San Diego and the California Air Resources Board.
An earlier version of this story identified the air quality researcher as Jonathan Apte. His first name is Joshua.