Perhaps most worrisome, New Delhi’s peak daily fine particle pollution levels are 44 percent higher this year than they were last year, when they averaged 328 over the first three weeks of the year.
Fine particle pollution has been strongly linked with premature death, heart attacks, strokes and heart failure. In October last year, the WHO declared that it caused lung cancer.
The US embassy in Beijing posts on Twitter the readings of its air monitor, helping to spur wide awareness of the problem. The readings have more than 35,000 followers. The US does not release similar readings from its New Delhi embassy, saying the Indian government releases its own figures.
In China, concerns about air quality have transfixed many urban residents and some government officials say curbing pollution is a priority. However, in India, New Delhi’s newly elected regional government did not mention air pollution among its 18 priorities and India’s environment minister quit last month amid widespread criticism that she was delaying crucial industrial projects. Her replacement, the government’s petroleum minister, almost immediately approved several projects that could add considerably to pollution.
Both India and China resisted pollution limits in global climate talks in Warsaw in November last year.
Frank Hammes, chief executive of IQAir, a Swiss-based maker of air filters, said his company’s sales were hundreds of times higher in China than in India.
“In China, people are extremely concerned about the air, especially around small children,” Hammes said. “Why there’s not the same concern in India is puzzling.”
In multiple interviews, New Delhiites expressed a mixture of unawareness and despair about the city’s pollution levels.
“I don’t think pollution is a major concern for [New] Delhi,” said Akanksha Singh, a 20-year-old engineering student who lives on the city’s outskirts in Ghaziabad, adding that he felt that New Delhi’s pollution problems were not nearly as bad as those of surrounding towns.
In 1998, India’s Supreme Court ordered that New Delhi’s taxis, three-wheelers and buses be converted to compressed natural gas, but the resulting improvements in air quality were short-lived as cars have flooded the roads. In the 1970s, New Delhi had about 800,000 vehicles — now it has 7.5 million, with 1,400 more added daily.
“Now the air is far worse than it ever was,” Center for Science and Environment executive director Anumita Roy Chowdhury said.
Indians’ relatively poor lung function has long been recognized, but researchers assumed for years that the difference was genetic.
Then a 2010 study found that the children of Indian immigrants who were born and raised in the US had far better lung function than those born and raised in India.
“It’s not genetics; it’s mostly the environment,” said MyLinh Duong, an assistant professor of respirology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
In a study published in October last year, Duong compared lung tests taken in 38,517 healthy nonsmokers from 17 countries who were matched by height, age and sex. Indians’ lung function was by far the lowest among those tested.