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What’s behind extreme air pollution in India

A toxic brew lingers in the skies over India, created by everything from agricultural burning to industrial pollution. Cars are also a major contributor, with roughly 1400 vehicles added to the roads daily. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro examined this problem roughly two years ago and returns with this update on the cultural and economic challenges of making Indian air safer to breathe.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There is a toxic brew in much of the air over India, sparked by everything from farmers burning their fields to industrial pollution.

    Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro examined this problem just over two years ago. And now he has this update.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Smoke billows from the fields of Northern India, as farmers burn remnants of their crops after harvest. They say it's the easiest and quickest way to get their fields ready for the next planting.

    But what is convenient for the farmers is wreaking havoc in nearby cities. The smoke from thousands of fields mixes with the pollution from millions of cars and trucks. Those noxious clouds of smog make it hard to see during the day and hard to breathe.

    Sakshi Chauhan is recovering from a severe throat infection.

  • Sakshi Chauhan (through translator):

    I was told that I have an infection. Because of this, I cannot eat anything from outside. The doctor told me not to go out, told me not to go out because of smog.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The smoke is so thick that, earlier this week, flights at New Delhi's international airport were delayed or canceled due to poor visibility.

    The city declared a public health emergency, restricted the number of cars allowed on the road, and ordered all construction work to stop.

  • Mukesh Kumar (through translator):

    The pollution has risen to great levels. Our company has halted construction since November 1. We had it shut even before that. We are following the official order. We have stopped all work, and all the precautions and initiatives are being taken to curb pollution here.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Also contributing to the rampant smog, plumes of smoke generated by fireworks during the recent festival of Diwali, a celebration of light where, now, during the day, there is less.

    Weather and wind patterns are also blamed for trapping pollutants over India's capital. Dirty fuels are the culprit from several sources. Automobiles are the major one. On average, 1,400 new vehicles are added to Delhi's streets every day, most now burning a highly polluting diesel long outlawed in Europe and the United States.

    By 2021, diesel fuel here will meet European standards. The government has also promised to shut down old coal-fired plants and restrict new ones. But pollution has been worsening for years. Two years ago, to get an idea of how dirty the air is, we went to one of the cleanest places in Delhi, the American Embassy School.

    It serves the children of American and other expats and diplomats. Many don face masks, but only until they're inside.

    Ellen Stern was the school's director.

  • Ellen Stern:

    We have an air system that goes all the way through the school. We now have four different kinds of filters on it that filter out various kinds of things.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Barun Aggarwal showed me the elaborate system his company, BreatheEasy, has set up in the school, pulling out the first layer of filter, thickly coated with a grimy soot.

    So, if you were to walk outside today, this is what is coming into your lungs?

  • Barun Aggarwal:

    Absolutely.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    The fine particle filters also show stark before-and-after evidence of the harmful air outside. You would think such systems would be in strong demand, but Aggarwal says, aside from a few buildings mostly occupied by expats, its been a hard sell.

    Among India's growing middle-class, he says, there's denial or indifference, a sense that pollution is the price of India's rapid economic progress.

  • Barun Aggarwal:

    The number of myths that are there with regards to air pollution in India are incredible.

    The first one that I get by mostly Indians is that, if I breathe clean air for eight hours, then my immunity will come down, and when I go out, I will fall sick. Completely wrong, because this is — if you believe that, then you should be giving your children two packets of cigarettes to smoke every day.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Kamal Meattle is an environmental activist who also designed the embassy school's filtration system. It works well, he says, but it is no panacea for a city of 20-plus million residents.

  • Kamal Meattle:

    You cannot have just air purifiers and cleaning systems for the people who can afford them. It has to be for the people who are on the road, who are in (INAUDIBLE) or slums.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Meattle, who trained at MIT, has developed lower-cost ways to cope with the pollution, plants, thousands of them in this rooftop greenhouse of his six-story office building. Clean air is produced, and each floor is pulling in the air as needed.

  • Kamal Meattle:

    And there are plants on each floor also. This is a central air cleaning system for the whole building.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Plants do more than produce oxygen, he says. They are natural air purifiers. Their roots eat bacteria and fungi and they absorb chemicals like formaldehyde and benzene produced by office products.

  • Kamal Meattle:

    Areca palms for the daytime, bamboo palm.

  • Fred de Sam Lazaro:

    Installing plants is a small step people can take indoors, but he acknowledges there's a huge complex problem outside these clean air bubbles, not easily solved in India's chaotic democracy.

    The Indian government says it's taken steps to reduce pollution. But, in the meantime, for years to come, India's capital and, for that matter, most of its major cities will continue to be among the most difficult places on Earth to breathe.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in New Delhi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fred's reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

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