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Science & Environment

India May Be Overtaking China As Most Polluted Country

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

India may be overtaking China as the world's most polluted country. Even now, which country is worse depends on the day. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from New Delhi with new figures about the city's horrific smog, if she can talk through the smog. Hi, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's it like to walk around New Delhi right now?

MCCARTHY: Well, I'll start from inside the house. I changed my filters on air purifiers yesterday. And by the afternoon, they were already getting black. You know, I'm exiled from basic rooms in the house because they face the street. And therefore, they face the smoke that comes pouring through the walls when guards (ph) are trying to warm themselves at night - you know, in small fires. It's debilitating here.

Your eyes are stinging. People are reporting a lot more respiratory infections. Masks are starting to appear, but you still really do kind of feel like a Martian wearing them. Not many Indians do. A few showed up at the half marathon here in Delhi last week wearing them in spite of the fact the Delhi High Court said nobody should be running this thing.

INSKEEP: Do you have days where smog affects the entire city and the life of the entire city?

MCCARTHY: Oh, absolutely. In fact, you know, earlier this month, there was this blinding shroud of smog over the city. The visibility was only a few feet in front of you. This was Delhi as dystopia. And it crept into people's homes. And it closed schools for the first time. People said they'd never seen anything like it. And the director of the air pollution program at the Center for Science and Environment, a woman by the name of Anumita Roychowdhury, drew comparisons to the great London Smog of 1952. And that's when London was blanketed with a cloud of pollutants. Four thousand people were killed. Nothing like that really came to pass here. But 64 years later, Roychowdhury says Delhi smog was every bit as toxic. Here she is.

ANUMITA ROYCHOWDHURY: And the levels that we saw in Delhi during that week were actually much higher than the levels that were recorded during London Smog. Now, that should give you an idea that what kind of a gas chamber it has turned into.

INSKEEP: Gas chambers, she says.

MCCARTHY: That's right. What she's really talking about there are the World Health Organization healthy levels for certain, very fine particulate matter. It shouldn't exceed any more than 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air during the course of a day. Here in Delhi, Steve, it was registering 900-plus during some hours. So it was a perfect toxic storm. And it was fit for no one.

INSKEEP: So what's making the air so toxic?

MCCARTHY: Well, we're in the winter season. The cooler air creates this inversion in the city. It gets trapped. All this pollution gets trapped. Then you've got diesel engine exhaust, which is declared a carcinogen. You've got coal-burning plants. You've got India's traditional festival of lights, where people fire off tons of firecrackers. And you've got all of this coinciding with smoke coming from farmers in the agricultural areas surrounding Delhi, who are burning the stubble of a crop every year before the winter planting season. And as I mentioned, you've got garbage burning 365 days a year.

INSKEEP: This cannot be good for public health.

MCCARTHY: No, this is not good for public health. And the World Health Organization broke down country by country just recently and said the deaths from outdoor pollution found that a million people died of dirty air in China in 2012. Those were the most recent statistics. And at least 600,000 died in India. But another report says that as of 2015, the average Indian is now exposed to more air pollution than the average Chinese person.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.