[But this year is the first time Indian schools have taken such precautions. As they waited to pick up children after school on Friday, parents described an array of their children’s symptoms, including burning eyes, incessant coughing and congestion that does not clear.]
By Suhasini Raj And Ellen Barry
Boys played soccer in a park on a smoggy morning in New Delhi on Wednesday.
Credit Adnan Abidi/Reuters
NEW DELHI — For the first time ever, more than 1,800 public primary schools in India’s capital will close on Saturday to protect children from exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution, the authorities said on Friday.
The decision affects more than a million children.
A thick, acrid smog has settled over the capital over the past week, a combination of smoke from burning crops in surrounding agricultural states, fireworks on the Hindu festival of Diwali, dust and vehicle emissions.
Levels of the most dangerous particles, called PM 2.5, reached 600 micrograms per cubic meter in different parts of the city this week, according to the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.
Sustained exposure to that concentration of PM 2.5 is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, said Sarath Guttikunda, the director of Urban Emissions, an independent research group.
The particles are small enough to deeply penetrate the lungs and enter the bloodstream, increasing the risk of stroke and heart failure, and can cause severe respiratory problems including asthma and pneumonia.
Conditions in the metropolis, home to about 20 million people, were particularly bad this week because there was little wind and the cloud of pollutants was “just going round and round,” Mr. Guttikunda said.
Teachers and parents said the effects on children were visible.
Meenakshi Sahni, the principal of the Modern School, closed her private school because of air pollution for the first time on Friday and advised parents via text message to keep their children indoors. There was “widespread coughing” among students and faculty members this week, she said.
“You could actually feel that there was something weighing down on them physically,” Ms. Sahni said. “Even at the gathering in the auditorium, you could feel as if somebody is strangling you.”
Foreigners and Indian elites have expressed growing alarm about winter air pollution in recent years, and some embassies have begun discouraging families with children from moving here.
But this year is the first time Indian schools have taken such precautions. As they waited to pick up children after school on Friday, parents described an array of their children’s symptoms, including burning eyes, incessant coughing and congestion that does not clear.
Seema Sansanwal, 38, said when she takes her 3½-year-old son to the doctor, the doctor “tells us, ‘Go out for an excursion and leave the city for some days, and he will be fine,’ instead of diagnosing.”
Poonam Tokas, 35, said she could not believe her eyes at the smog on Monday, the day after Diwali, and has forbidden her children from playing outside until it clears. “We are going to buy masks this evening,” she said. “But I do not think anyone can save us from the wrath of nature.”
Indu, a municipal councilor from South Delhi and a member of the municipal corporation’s education committee, said it was the first time the city had taken such measures. “We took stock of how bad the smog and pollution level had reached,” said Ms. Indu, who uses only one name. “Even doctors are advising against going for walks. Television channels are presenting reports showing that pollution is as bad as smoking two dozen cigarettes.”
She said that “we are hoping weather conditions will improve on Monday,” allowing schools to reopen. “But at least children would have stayed away from the polluted outdoors over the weekend.”
Keeping children at home reduces their level of activity and lessens their exposure to air pollution, especially in areas where vehicle emissions are at their highest, Mr. Guttikunda said.
But he added that the air quality inside a house often was not much better than outside, unless doors and windows were closed and sealed.
“If you open them for even half a minute, it’s gone,” he said.
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