Running in the world’s most polluted city

As part of the Mail & Guardian’s series on air pollution, Simon Allison reports on his experience of living with the air in New Delhi — often the most polluted city in the world. 


There is an air purifier in every New Delhi residence that can afford it. Mine was the stuff of nightmares: a white rectangular machine, about the size of that small android from Star Wars, with a semi-circular row of warning lights apparently designed to mimic a human smile. Before bed, it usually gleamed a reassuring green. But sometimes, in the middle of the night, I would wake to the maniacal glow of a red robot rictus, which told me that the pollution had breached my defences and every breath was slowly killing me.

Air pollution in New Delhi is a physical presence that hangs over the city, a murky blanket of fog that turns even the brightest midday sun into fuzzy orange twilight. Flying into the city, there is a clear line where the blue skies end and the smog begins; and on one especially bad day, the haze was so heavy that it was clearly visible inside the baggage reclaim area of Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Its impact is psychological as much as physical: without taking any deliberate decision to do so, I was learning to get by with as little air as possible. I found that my brain had told my body to draw only short, shallow breaths, and to avoid long sighs or gasps of delight or exasperation.

On one cold winter’s morning I decided to go running. I put on my shorts, I tied the laces of my running shoes, and I stepped outside into the calm, tree-lined streets of an upmarket suburb in South Delhi. I did a few stretches, and jogged on the spot to warm up my tired muscles. As my heart rate increased, I inhaled deeply, and imagined the dirty air slide down my throat like the first drag on a cigarette.

This is the world’s most polluted city. Over Christmas in 2018 — winter months are always worse than summer, with no rain or wind to dissipate the toxins — the air quality index reached 450, according to official data from the government’s Central Pollution Control Board. Anything above 100 is unhealthy.

When the air is that bad, any kind of physical activity is bad for you. “Any form of strenuous exercise including jogging at more than five kilometres per hour should be avoided during this period. People should also try to avoid other forms of pollution such as burning incense sticks and mosquito coils indoors,” said Dr TK Joshi, ahead of another especially bad spell in November last year.

Defeated, I heeded this advice. I walked back inside. I untied my laces, and did not touch my running shoes again, making the same calculation that so many Delhiites have been forced into: outdoor exercise is ultimately less healthy than sitting inside in the air-conditioning, doing nothing.

Last week, the M&G reported on the crisis in air quality across South Africa’s major cities. Read more on that as well as the airpocalypse unfolding in Midrand.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
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