Thousands of schools close as smog envelopes India, Pakistan

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Schools closed across large swathes of north India yesterday as a hazardous fog of toxic pollution cloaked the region for a third day, with growing calls for urgent government action to tackle what doctors are calling a public health emergency.

Punjab’s government said it was closing all 25,000 schools in the state for the rest of the week due to the acrid air blanketing north India and parts of neighbouring Pakistan.

The decision came a day after Delhi authorities ordered all 6,000 schools in the capital to shut until Sunday.

Low winds and the annual post-harvest burning of crop stubble in Punjab and neighbouring areas have caused the levels of dangerous pollutants in the air to spike to many times the levels considered safe. Air quality typically worsens before the onset of winter as cooler air traps pollutants near the ground and prevents them from dispersing into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as inversion.

Indian activists wear facemasks to protect them from pollution during a mask distribution drive at the roadside in New Delhi. – AFP

Figures on the US embassy website showed levels of PM2.5 – the smallest particulates that cause most damage to health – spiked at over 1,000 on Wednesday afternoon in Delhi, though by Thursday they had fallen to 590.

The World Health Organization’s guidelines say 25 is the maximum level of PM2.5 anyone can safely be exposed to over a 24-hour period.

Doctors say the microscopic particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.