Smog So Bad United Airlines Won't Fly There

It's not the poor visibility but the air quality, ten times worse than Beijing, that has caused the airline to stop flying to New Delhi.

3 minute read

November 15, 2017, 6:00 AM PST

By Irvin Dawid

"New Delhi’s air quality is consistently ranked among the world’s worst," report Vidhi Doshi and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. for The Washington Post on November 11.

But a perfect storm of problems is exacerbating the problem to potentially deadly levels. Farmers who have recently harvested crops in neighboring states are illegally burning their fields, sending smoke into the air. Construction projects and pollution from vehicles in a city that lacks adequate public transportation are making things worse.

Gas chamber

"[Delhi] Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called the capital, home to about 20 million people, a 'gas chamber' as his government sought meetings with adjoining states to address the issue," reports New Delhi TV on Nov 9. "Experts are calling the situation in Delhi a major public health emergency."

Particulate pollution

The levels of the deadliest, tiny particulate matter known as PM 2.5, which lodge deep in a person's lungs, soared on Tuesday to 726, according to a U.S. embassy monitor.

World Health Organization guidelines suggest exposure to levels of about 10, while anything less than 50 is considered healthy and levels above 300 are considered "hazardous." At 2 p.m. Wednesday [Nov. 8], Beijing had a level of around 76 while pollutants in Delhi's air measured 833.

Odd-even driving restriction called off

NDTV reported on Nov. 11 that it was ready to drastically cut driving to reduce air pollution in Delhi by prohibiting driving of cars and scooters based on license plate numbers, with a notable exception for compressed natural gas (CNG)- powered vehicles. The restriction was due to take effect from Nov. 13 to Nov. 17, but it was called-off the next day, reports NDTV's CarAndBike Team.

The plan was called off thanks to the dropping pollution levels, generated mainly by burning of crops and thermal energy power stations. The Central Pollution Board Control (CPBC) revealed that the level of particulate matter (PM) 10 is below 500 and particulate matter 2.5 is below 300, which is a sign of things improving. It is advisable to put the odd-even plan into action once PM 10 levels rise above 500 and PM 2.5 go above 300 for 48 hours continuously.

The program had proven successful when implemented for the first time in January 2016 for two weeks, but it ran into difficulties with the exemptions for women drivers and scooters.

Blaming farmers – similarity to burning in Indonesian palm oil and pulp and paper plantations 

"Kejriwal blamed the pollution on farmers in the neighboring states of Haryana and Punjab for burning crop residue, an annual tradition to clear fields that combines with vehicle and industrial emissions, as well as road and construction dust," reports NDTV.

Last year, NASA satellite imagery showed thick plumes of smoke rising across north India and covering Delhi -- similar to when the agency tracked fires from Indonesia's Sumatra, which regularly drift over and pollute Singapore.

One source of urban air pollution that wasn't mentioned, but was prevalent in The Washington Post video, were the "super-polluting" two-stroke scooters and jitneys that appear to outnumber cars on Delhi's streets.

Pollution's deadly toll in the sub-continent

According to last month's study by the Lancet Commission on pollution and health, 9 million die annually across the globe from pollution.

"India, where both traditional and modern pollution are severe, has by far the largest number of pollution deaths at 2.5m," according to The Guardian. "China is second with 1.8m and Russia and the US are also in the top 10."

Hat tip to Gregory Bungo.

Saturday, November 11, 2017 in The Washington Post

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