India's air is so toxic, it's taking cars off the road, canceling flights, and closing schools

Vehicles wait for a signal at a crossing as the city enveloped in smog in New Delhi, India. Authorit...
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India is one of the most populous countries in the world and still growing. While the nation has set some of the most ambitious goals to cut carbon emissions and reduce greenhouse gases, it is still a nation of more than one billion people, many relying on fossil-fuel guzzling cars to navigate the crowded city streets and traverse the sprawling plains of the countryside. The result in India's capital city of Delhi is air pollution levels that are at least eight times higher than the maximum safe level. In response to India's air pollution crisis, the country's government has introduced a car rationing system that will limit residents' ability to drive in an effort to cut down on the amount of pollution being pushed into the atmosphere.

Under the plan, which is already in effect and will last through November 15, private vehicles will only be allowed on the road every other day. The rules will be enforced based on the license numbers on vehicles. Those ending with odd numbers can use the street on odd-numbered days, while plates ending with an even number can drive on even days. The plan will, in theory, cut in half the more than three million vehicles that take to the streets of Delhi each day, according to Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of the city. However, critics of the plan say that it's unlikely to accomplish much. While it will temporarily remove many cars from the road for a short period of time, this isn't the first time that India has tried this vehicle rationing program and improvements have been minimal in the past. In fact, it's believed that the primary contributor to the air pollution is not cars but rather farmers burning crops in agricultural regions and massive construction products in the city.

The plan may seem drastic, but something in India's capital city has to change. For the last week, Delhi has been blanketed in a heavy smog that is affecting the health of its residents. On November 1, India's pollution control board declared a public health emergency after the city's Air Quality Index (AQI) peaked above 700. For reference, a safe level of pollution on the scale top out at around 50. Once air quality hits the 100 mark, it is considered unhealthy, particularly for sensitive groups like people with lung disease. When levels climb over 300, it is considered to be dangerous for everyone who breathes the air, whether they have special sensitivities or not. The AQI doesn't have separate classifications for any level above 500. At one point on Sunday, AQI levels in multiple parts of Delhi hit 999, which means the air pollution was so bad that it couldn't even be accurately recorded. The biggest cause of the increasingly dangerous levels of air quality are pollutants known as PM2.5 particles, which are put into the air when fuel is burned. These particles can get into the lungs and cause respiratory issues including difficulties breathing and even ongoing diseases. According to the World Health Organization, air is considered to be safe if it has 60 milligrams of the particles per cubic meter. In Delhi, levels have been closer to 500 milligrams per cubic meter, more than eight times the acceptable levels.

The effects of being exposed to this level of pollution, especially for an extended period of time, can be devastating to the human body. In the short term, air pollution exposes people to illnesses like pneumonia or bronchitis. It can also lead to irritation of the skin, as well as the nose, throat and eyes. Other effects of pollution can include headaches, dizziness and nausea — and that's just for people who experience short-term exposure. For those who are living in smog like that in India, the risks of long-term health effects are increased. Air pollution can stick with a person for their entire lifetime, and can shorten a person's life expectancy. Air pollution can contribute to heart disease, lung cancer, respiratory diseases and failure. It can also damage other organs like the brain, kidneys and liver. It is especially devastating for children, who can have their development stunted by air pollution.

Beyond the health concerns, what India is facing is an ongoing public emergency. Schools and colleges in Delhi have shut down for at least this week. Construction projects have been banned until Tuesday, and hundreds of flights out of the country have been delayed our outright canceled because visibility is so low that the planes cannot safely take off. Life has effectively come to a standstill because of the dense clouds of pollution that have settled in atop the city. Delhi's chief minister has described the city as a “gas chamber.” Pollution has been an ongoing problem for the city and its 19 million inhabitants for years now, and a study published earlier this year estimated that air pollution was responsible for the death of more than 100,000 children under the age of five each year. With the smog issue unlikely to clear up any time soon, it's hard to see any end in sight for the crisis.