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Death by pollution: Delhi’s fight for clean air – Feb. 17, 2016

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Death by pollution: Delhi’s fight for clean air – Feb. 17, 2016

The night before the biggest exam of his life, Sarthak Jain couldn’t breathe. His limbs were listless, his breathing labored.Jain’s parents, both trained doctors, recognized the signs of a severe asthma attack. They put the 18-year-old in the family car and raced to a nearby hospital. Doctors determined that Jain was suffering from low levels of oxygen in his blood. His life was in danger. Jain was given injections and put on a nebulizer. His relatives, told to prepare for the worst, huddled together in the intensive care unit and cried.Jain is one of 20 million Delhi residents forced to breathe the world’s most polluted air. While Beijing grabs the headlines for poor air quality, scientists say the pollution here is far worse. In 2014, the World Health Organization released data on air quality in 1,600 cities, and Delhi was found to have the highest concentration of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, also called PM 2.5.The air in Delhi assaults the senses: On bad days, thick smog obscures the sun, reducing visibility to just a few hundred meters. The smog is often tinged with woodsmoke, and the scent clings to jackets and trousers like air from a smoky bar. Delhi’s High Court has compared conditions in the city to “living in a gas chamber.”PM 2.5 particles are exceedingly small and can evade the body’s normal defenses and penetrate deep into the lungs, causing chronic health problems.

They have been linked to increased risk of asthma, heart disease, stroke and respiratory infections, as well as cancer of the trachea, lung, and bronchus.”In the city of Delhi, exposure to the air is equal to smoking maybe 10 cigarettes a day,” Rajesh Chawla, a respiratory physician at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, told me. “Everybody is a smoker in this city.”Related: I live in the world’s most polluted city. The same heavy use of fossil fuels that has helped turn India into the world’s fastest-growing major economy is now choking its residents — and raising questions about the government’s blueprint for future development. Other cities have faced similar public health crises. Los Angeles used to be so polluted that, during World War II, residents mistook thick smog for a Japanese chemical munitions attack. Londoners suffered greatly during the industrial revolution. Polluting steel mills contributed to scores of deaths in the American Midwest.But Delhi’s leaders face a particularly fraught policy dilemma: Crack down too hard on the sources of pollution and risk damaging economic growth in a megacity where millions of people still live in abject poverty. Do nothing and sentence all of Delhi’s children to a lifetime of breathing dirty air.Sarthak Jain, now 20 years old.Jain, the young student, survived that night in the hospital. He made enough progress after doctors intervened to stagger out of the intensive care unit, and to his exam. Miraculously, he scored well, and now, two years later, is studying at a local university. Jain has changed, though: He wears a mask whenever he goes outside, and he sees a doctor regularly to keep his asthma in check. He still suffers from attacks — some severe. He now works with other students to raise awareness about the dangers of dirty air, which he describes in the starkest of terms.”I cannot just run away from it. I am dying a slow death, I know it,” Jain said. “I live in a constant fear of what will happen. I am looking at a bleak future.”Delhi’s battle against air pollution dates to at least 2001, when India’s Supreme Court, appalled at conditions in the city, ordered public buses, taxis and autorickshaws to switch from diesel power to compressed natural gas. Residents still talk about the massive lines that resulted at petrol stations. The actions forced by the Supreme Court, combined with new fuel standards, greatly improved air quality. But now the trend has reversed. More often than not this winter, when I have checked on my phone, Apple’s weather app has simply read “smoke.”The city is sprawling, and a lack of effective public transportation has fueled an explosion in car ownership. The city has 9 million vehicles, and new cars are being registered at a rate of 1,400 per day. India’s fuel standards are roughly 10 years behind those of Europe, and low petrol prices incentivize driving. Cooking fuel, construction dust and coal-burning power plants add particles and toxic gasses to the mix. When the weather turns cold, the city’s poor huddle together in slums and along busy roads, warming themselves around small wood or trash fires. This winter, PM 2.5 levels have frequently topped 500, a reading that is literally off the charts.To find out why Delhi was again facing a major crisis, I took a trip to Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, to meet the first in a series of doctors, reformers, advocates, lawyers and entrepreneurs who are battling entrenched bureaucracy in an effort to clean the city’s air.The domination of cars over Delhi’s transportation infrastructure is on full di

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