November 8, 2018 / 3:33 AM / 10 days ago

Smog in Indian capital severe after unfettered festival fireworks

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Pollution in the Indian capital, New Delhi, rose to a “severe” level on Thursday after revelers let off fireworks long into the night to mark the Hindu festival of Diwali.

Two federal government pollution indices showed air at “very poor” and “severe” levels, indicating that prolonged exposure could lead to respiratory illnesses.

The indices mostly measure the concentration of tiny poisonous particulate matter, or PM 2.5, particles that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which can be carried deep into the lungs.

The U.S. embassy said PM 2.5 levels in its part of central Delhi had soared to 689, indicating emergency conditions, posing a serious health risk.

A level of 50 or less is considered safe.

A task-force under the federal pollution control board was scheduled to meet to assess the situation, a city government spokesman told Reuters.

After the Diwali festival, levels of airborne PM 10 and PM 2.5 touched 470 and 322 respectively, up from 438 and 180 in 2018, the Central Pollution Control Board said in a bulletin.

But this year’s concentrations of both PM 10 and PM 2.5 were lower than 2016, it added.

Buildings are seen shrouded in smog in New Delhi, India, November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Few Delhi residents wear face masks when they go out in heavy smog and joggers and passersby were out as normal near parliament early on Thursday.

Last month, the Supreme Court allowed the use of “green” firecrackers for Diwali, but only for two hours in the evening.

However, there were no “green” fireworks available for sale and countless fireworks were let off through the evening.

Authorities have been reluctant to ban fireworks to avoid offending members of the majority Hindu community. Diwali is one of their biggest festivals.

“The Supreme Court order on fireworks was not followed and health warnings from the government were limited to few newspapers and some websites,” said Greenpeace campaigner Sunil Dahiya.

The apparent lack of concern about the toxic air - whether through ignorance or apathy - gives politicians the cover they need for failing to address the problem, say environmental activists and others.

Tiny particulate matter can cause major health problems.

In recent weeks, Delhi doctors have reported an increase in patients with respiratory problems.

Slideshow (9 Images)

Adding to the smog has been smoke from the surrounding countryside, where farmers at this time of the year burn the stubble in their fields to prepare for winter sowing.

More gentle winds and cool air, which can trap pollution, exacerbate the problem.

For a second year, New Delhi’s chief minister has likened the city to a “gas chamber”. Last year, he declared a public health crisis, shut schools for a week and told residents to remain indoors.

Reporting by Neha Dasgupta; Edited by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Marie-Louise Gumuchian

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