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India’s extreme smog pollution can take large toll on human health

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
November 28, 2017, 10:01:07 AM EST

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Air quality levels in northern India, specifically in the capital city New Delhi, were off the charts earlier this November.

Concentration of the dangerous microscopic particulate matter (PM2.5) particles, which can travel deep into your lungs and damage them, climbed to more than 1,000 on the United States embassy air quality index in the past month. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers anything above 151 to be unhealthy for anyone and levels above 101 to be unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Merely breathing air with a PM2.5 content of between 950 and 1,000 is like smoking 44 cigarettes in a day, according to the independent Berkeley Earth science research group.

Hospitals in India reported a 20 percent surge in patients with pollution-related illnesses, and doctors declared a public health emergency.

Since its peak, the international air quality index (AQI) in the area has remained largely in the categories "unhealthy," "very unhealthy" and "hazardous," according to AccuWeather Meteorologist Faith Eherts.

india pollution

Motorists drive surrounded by smog in New Delhi, India, on Nov. 8, 2017. A thick gray haze enveloped India's capital on Wednesday as air pollution hit hazardous levels. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

"Air quality in northern India, and specifically New Delhi, deteriorates to extremely unhealthy levels each autumn as dry, calm weather combines with the city's own pollution and smoke from the surrounding areas," Eherts said.

This stagnant weather pattern is typically at its worst during November following the Diwali holiday, a Hindu festival that was celebrated on Oct. 19 this year. Smoke is the main pollutant, though construction dust and factory fumes also contribute.

As a result, itchy eyes, scratchy and sore throats and coughing are common symptoms in such poor air quality, according to Eherts. Some people can even feel nauseated and become sick.

India tops the world in pollution-related deaths, accounting for 2.5 million of the total 9 million deaths attributed to pollution worldwide in 2015, a recent report by the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health stated.

In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one in four deaths, according to the report.

India smog Nov 10

Indian commuters wait for transport amid thick blanket of smog on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, on November, 10 2017. As air pollution peaked this week in Delhi, it rose to more than 30 times the World Health Organization’s recommended safe level. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Exposure to the fine PM2.5 particles increases the occurrence of long-term health impacts. Worsened and new cases of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, heart disease and stroke, become more likely, according to Eherts.

Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a range of health problems, including premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat and decreased lung function, an EPA spokesperson said in email.

Those with heart or lung diseases, children and older adults are the most likely to be affected by particle pollution exposure, according to an EPA spokesperson.

See the detailed New Delhi weather forecast
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AccuWeather air quality blog

According to World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide ambient air pollution accounts for:

  • 25 percent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer.
  • 17 percent of all deaths and disease from acute lower respiratory infection.
  • 16 percent of all deaths from stroke.
  • 15 percent of all deaths and disease from ischaemic heart disease.
  • 8 percent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Pollutants with the strongest evidence for public health concern include particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2), according to WHO.

U.S. Embassy and Consulates in India track only PM2.5; it does not track other contaminants that contribute to air pollution.

To see the current air quality readings and warnings in New Delhi, click here.

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