As India wakes up on Monday to smoke-filled skies from a weekend of festival fireworks, New Delhi’s worst season for air pollution begins, with dire consequences.
A new report from UNICEF says most of the 2 billion children in the world who are breathing toxic air live in north India and neighbouring countries, risking serious health effects, including damage to their lungs, brains and other organs. Of that global total, 300 million kids are exposed to pollution levels more than six times higher that standards set by the World Health Organization, including 220 million in South Asia.
For Delhi, the alarming numbers are hardly a surprise. New Delhi’s air pollution, among the world’s worst, spikes every winter because of the season’s weak winds and countless garbage fires set alight to help people stay warm.
Even days before Diwali, recorded levels of tiny, lung-clogging particulate matter known as PM 2.5 were considered dangerous. On Friday, PM 2.5 levels were well above 300 micrograms per cubic meter, more than 30 times higher than the WHO recommendation of no more than 10 mcg per cubic meter.
Children face much higher health risks from air pollution than adults. Children breathe twice as quickly, taking in more air in relation to their body weight, while their brains and immune systems are still developing and vulnerable.
“The impact is commensurately shocking,” with 600,000 children younger than 5 across the world dying every year from air pollution-related disease, UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said in the report released on Monday. Millions more suffer from respiratory diseases that diminish their resilience and affect their physical and cognitive development.
Of the 2 billion children worldwide breathing unhealthy air, the report puts 620 million of them in South Asia, mostly northern India. Since being identified as one of the world’s most polluted cities in recent years, New Delhi has tried to clean its air. It has barred cargo trucks from city streets, required drivers to buy newer cars that meet higher emissions standards and carried out several weeks of experimental traffic control, limiting the number of cars on the road. But other pollution sources including construction dust and cooking fires fueled by wood or kerosene continue unabated.