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Residents Of Indian Capital Sound Alarms About Air Pollution Amid Diwali And Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

India's capital has some of the dirtiest air in the world. During the coronavirus lockdown this year, skies turned blue. But with the lockdown now lifted, the smog has returned, and it's complicating COVID cases. And as NPR's India producer Sushmita Pathak reports, a holiday celebration this weekend will likely make things worse.

SUSHMITA PATHAK, BYLINE: These days, the pollution is so bad the Sherry Frosh doesn't let her children play outdoors. The 43-year-old lives in a suburb of New Delhi and is part of a group of moms fighting for clean air.

SHERRY FROSH: I have a monitor at home, and you just see the PM 2.5 shoot up.

PATHAK: PM 2.5 is fine particulate matter in the air, which enters the lungs and bloodstream and causes harm. In recent days, the concentration of PM 2.5 in Delhi's air has reached 14 times the safe level. Biking to work has become a struggle for Frosh.

FROSH: You have to cycle very slowly to be able to, you know, keep the mask on. And, of course, the masks, you know, get clogged up so quickly because you are in unprecedented kinds of pollution.

PATHAK: Every winter, a grayish-yellow smog descends on Delhi. It's a mix of exhaust from coal-fired power plants and vehicles, dust from construction sites and smoke from farmers burning crop waste. Winds drops, so pollutants linger in the air. And this year's pollution has coincided with COVID-19.

PRATIBHA GOGIA: So it is a double jeopardy on your lungs.

PATHAK: A double jeopardy of COVID and pollution, says Dr. Pratibha Gogia, a respiratory specialist in Delhi. She says even without COVID, ICU beds at her hospital fill up every winter.

GOGIA: So this year, the crisis will deepen because half of our ICUs are filled with corona, and the rest of the half of our ICU will not be sufficient for routine respiratory problems.

PATHAK: A Harvard study indicated that long-term exposure to air polluted with fine particulate matter increases the chances of serious illness or death from COVID-19. The capital has been seeing record numbers of infections this month.

VIMLENDU JHA: It's a very, very critical, dangerous week ahead of us.

PATHAK: Environmental activist Vimlendu Jha is sounding the alarm about the upcoming holiday of Diwali. This is what Diwali sounds like in a typical year.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS EXPLODING)

PATHAK: Firecrackers are set off to celebrate the festival of lights. Government bans on firecrackers are rarely enforced. Even before COVID, the government would send trucks around the capital spraying mist to try to clean the air, but Jha says these are Band-Aid solutions.

JHA: So there's COVID in the air, and there's dust and PM 2.5 in the air, and therefore we don't know whether to stay indoors or whether to go outdoors.

PATHAK: Frosh, from the moms group, faces that dilemma, too. But she also has some hope. More people are wearing masks because of the pandemic, and that might end up protecting them from the pollution, too, she says. And for a few precious months this spring, Delhiites got a taste under lockdown of what their skies could look like.

FROSH: So people were talking about seeing mountains in the distance and great visibility all around. They got used to birds singing and smelling flowers and breathing in.

PATHAK: And so this winter, instead of resigning themselves to the pollution, Frosh hopes the pandemic makes Delhiites realize that the air quality is an urgent health crisis, too. For NPR News, I'm Sushmita Pathak in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE FITZGERALD'S "PASSING TRAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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