A family worries over toxic air's chilling effects

A man covers his face with a handkerchief as he walks in a park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi. PHOTO: REUTERS

I have been living in Delhi for nearly two decades and my husband for many more years. Even though we come from different parts of India, it has always been home and our place of work.

Neither of us suffers from any respiratory issues, but the past few days have made us worry about how the polluted air of India's capital city is probably affecting us in ways we do not even know yet.

Every day this week, we have woken up to a suffocating greyish smog through which we could not even see the next building.

For the first time, we discussed getting air purifiers for the house and buying masks.

While I am wondering if an ongoing migraine complete with smarting eyes has been made worse by the pollution, my concern is for my six-month-old daughter, who is growing up breathing toxic air.

A 2010 study by the government, which is often quoted in the Indian media, said more than 40 per cent of children in Delhi have impaired lung capacity. Does this mean that today, seven years later, all children in the capital have some kind of lung problem?

We stopped taking our daughter out for her evening walks this week, and have kept her indoors.

All around us, people are being affected as badly.

My parents called on Tuesday to say they had to rush their neighbour and a good family friend, who suffers from asthma, to the hospital in the middle of the night.

The family friend has since left Delhi on the doctor's advice and said she would return only after the pollution levels come down.

A friend of mine called yesterday to say he and his wife are actively thinking of relocating their photography work out of Delhi.

Other friends have been sending pictures and messages on what anti-pollution masks to buy and what precautions to take.

All the doors and windows in our house are kept shut all the time, though there is little to suggest it makes much of a difference.

PM2.5, or the fine particulate matter that causes respiratory diseases, has gone above 400 micrograms per cubic metre in our area. The permissible level of PM2.5 in India is 60mcg per cubic metre.

As I go out for work assignments, I see more and more people at bus stops and coming out of the metro wearing anti-pollution masks. Not too long ago, masks were visible only on the faces of foreign tourists or expatriates living in the city. But the most frightening aspect of the smog is that there is little sign the situation will improve.The number of cars on the roads is not going to go down as long as the public transport system is weak.

An environmentalist I spoke to pointed out that lives had to be disrupted to improve the city's air.

The government has started the "odd-and-even" scheme to force people to take out their cars on alternate days depending on the licence plate numbers. Others must be persuaded not to buy that second or third car. Farmers around Delhi must stop burning crop stubble during this period.

The question remains whether residents of Delhi and its surroundings are willing to make that sacrifice. I know I am.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2017, with the headline 'A family worries over toxic air's chilling effects'. Subscribe