NEW DELHI • A million schoolchildren were forced to stay at home, thousands of employees reported sick and long queues formed outside shops selling face masks yesterday as New Delhi struggled with its worst pollution in nearly 20 years.
The Indian capital's government was considering whether to bring back a scheme to reduce traffic, a minister said yesterday, as air pollution remained many times above what is considered to be safe levels for a second week.
New Delhi's streets were shrouded in a heavy grey haze of smoke, ash and other pollutants, and residents complained of breathlessness, watering of eyes, aggravated coughs and wheezing.
"We are now calling this a pollution epidemic. Our advisory to people is to stay at home, if possible work from home," said Mr K. K. Aggarwal, president of the Indian Medical Association.
Levels of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that reaches deep into the lungs, were above 700 micrograms per cubic metre in the worst-affected areas yesterday.
That is nearly 30 times a mean recommended maximum of 25 micrograms per cubic metre over a 24-hour period set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which says outdoor air pollution killed 3.7 million people globally in 2012.
"It's been a nightmare. My toddler and I woke up from a nap coughing as if pepper had been sprinkled on our throats," said Ms Tara Chowdhry, a New Delhi resident.
"I climbed trees in this city. I played near India Gate. Now we are trapped in our living rooms next to air purifiers."
Children have been among the hardest hit. Many crammed into Shishu Sadan Children's Hospital in west Delhi for respiratory spasms and aggravated asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis.
A combination of smoke from burning farm residue in surrounding states, fireworks for the Hindu festival of Diwali, dust from construction work and vehicle emissions have pushed pollution levels to their highest in 17 years.
Mr Mohammad Kamil, manager of a store that sells face masks, said he used to sell about six masks on average in a week, but now they have 150 to 200 customers a day. "We have run out of stock, but we are taking orders," he said.
India, the world's fastest growing major economy, is home to four of the world's 10 cities with the worst air pollution, the WHO said in May. New Delhi ranked 11th.