Despite extremely dangerous levels of air pollution choking Delhi and creating “gas chamber” conditions, thousands took to the streets to run a half marathon on Sunday. Most walked without masks that would filter harmful pollution.
In recent weeks, air pollution readings around the sprawling megacity have fallen off the charts, reaching levels about 30 times those considered safe by the World Health Organization. Authorities blamed the toxic smog on seasonal burns in nearby areas, as well as calm winds and the usual emissions from vehicles and industry.
Exasperated doctors explained that it was harmful just to walk around in the smog, let alone run. The thick pollution can cause asthma attacks, lung and heart damage and sudden cardiac arrest, they warned. And they pleaded with race organizers and authorities to cancel or postpone the event, which has long been scheduled for November 19.
Last week, the Indian Medical Association made a final attempt to thwart the plans, petitioning the Delhi High Court to reschedule the 21 km race. But the organizers argued that they had taken precautions and the event went ahead as planned. More than 30,000 runners braved the conditions on Sunday.
During the race, the level of airborne pollution from fine particles in the air – particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5) – reached more than 200 µg/m3. The World Health Organization considers levels less than 25 µg/m3 Being safe. Sunday’s pollution levels fell into the “very unhealthy” or “very bad” categories of India’s country-specific air quality index. At that level, authorities recommend that active adults and children avoid all outdoor exertion.
Runners had a mix of complaints about the conditions; some were startled by the noxious air, while others grumbled about wearing masks that might slow them down.
“My eyes burn, my throat is dry. I have a running nose,” said Rohit Mohan, a 30-year-old runner The protector. Mohan, from the southern city of Bangalore, was among the minority who wore a mask. “It’s been terrible since I landed here yesterday,” Mohan added.
On the other hand, Abhay Sen complained to the AFP about wearing a mask that filters the pollution: “Obviously it’s much harder to breathe, so you’re not trying hard here and you can’t take it off,” Sen said.
Still others thought the weather was nice for a long distance race – no masks required. “It’s light and pleasant. We just love it,” said runner Saikat Banerjee.
One thing everyone could agree on is that the race conditions could have been worse. A week and a half ago, levels of PM2.5 around the city reached an astonishing 640 µg/m3, well beyond the heavy category. The recent rain helped lower smog levels this weekend. And prior to the race, the organizers sprayed the track with salt water to try to remove any dust.
In the end, Ethiopian runner Berhanu Legese won the men’s division, completing the half marathon in 59 minutes and 46 seconds. Ethiopian runner Almaz Ayana won the women’s division by one hour, seven minutes and eleven seconds.