A blanket of thick gray smog obscures the skies in New Delhi. Breathing or seeing through the grim air is not healthy, but for some residents, buying a protective mask or an air purifier costs too much.

The same thing occurs in Hanoi, where the toxic smog limits visibility. Wearing a mask through the smog will only help a little, as a resident in the city says, because there are other air pollution effects that you have to escape from.

Unfortunately, the air pollution in these two cities is a large fragment of the cumulative smog that swathes the planet.

New Delhi and Hanoi are part of a list of cities where air pollution is literally seeping into the lives of all inhabitants, causing more harm than what is manageable. Although several of these cities may have clean streets and clean water on the surface or comprehensive waste management programs, a sky teeming with noxious air pollution still implicates deep strife for city inhabitants.

Air Pollution in Tehran and Turkey during Winter Months

The skies in Tehran are among the most polluted in the world, health experts said.

Dangerous levels of air pollution in the city have prompted authorities to temporarily shut down schools and kindergartens. Because of the unhealthy and polluted weather, authorities have also ordered the closure of schools in Arak and Isfahan.

Since Dec. 22, the air quality in Tehran has been in the red-alert zone. The volume of air pollutants in the city has elevated seven times more beyond acceptable levels.

The Tehran City Council Secretary Mehdi Chamran said the rising air pollution has caused the average number of deaths in the city to increase to 180 people per day.

Chamran said the air pollution that plagues the city is "a silent killer."

Aside from schools, officials have also ordered the postponing of sand mining in the area, but Chamran believes that this is not enough, and that permanent closure should be done.

Meanwhile, data from Acıbadem University Atakent Hospital (AUAH) in Turkey revealed that at least 29,000 people in the country die of air pollution-related diseases, including lung cancer.

Haluk Çalışır of AUAH said about 40 percent of patients die by either chronic obstructive pulmonary and respiratory infections or lung cancer.

About 34 percent are killed off by stroke, while 26 percent die from ischemic heart disease, Çalışır said, noting that those who are exposed to air pollution are at higher risk for cardiovascular diseases.

Air Pollution in Beijing is Getting Worse

In Beijing, cars are taken off roads, while schools and factories are temporarily closed down.

Authorities in the city have already issued two red alerts for smog this December, as the United States Embassy in Beijing has recorded a PM2.5 (particulate matter) index of more than 400. The hazardous level threatens respiratory risks for the city's inhabitants.

The thick smog in Beijing does not only come from within the city, but also from neighboring industrial hubs such as Handan, Shijiazhuang, and Tangshan.

"Often these surrounding areas already emit more pollution than Beijing," said Berkeley Earth scientist Robert Rohde.

In China's Northeast cities, smog is also prevalent. Changchun, Harbin, and Shenyang experienced greater pollution spikes than that in 2014 - sometimes, the surge is higher than that of Beijing.

Air Pollution in New Delhi is Often Worse than in Beijing

New Delhi is also among the top list of cities with the most polluted air.

In the early months of 2015, authorities in New Delhi have noted that the levels of PM2.5 in the city are 45 percent higher than the levels in Beijing.

Beijing contains more than 30 government monitors that track the city's air quality, while New Delhi only has four and one U.S. embassy monitor.

"Delhi doesn't have nearly enough," said Joshua Apte of University of Texas. "And it's still the best off in the country."

How Air Pollution Affects Inhabitants

Mike DeAngelo who had moved to Beijing said the thick smog has left him feeling more than depressed.

"In the throes of the most severe bout of smog we suffered in Beijing a few weeks ago, it was five days of walking around in what looked like a nuclear winter," said DeAngelo.

DeAngelo said he has learned not to take for granted days when there are blue skies in the city.

Meanwhile, 14-year-old Sun Tian said that on days when the smog is bad, they avoid going outside and make sure the windows are all shut.

"If I see an open window or door in the hallway, I try to close it. But some windows are too high up for me to reach," said Tian.

Sun Tian and 30 others in his class saved up money to buy their classroom an air purifier, and not everyone can afford one.

In New Delhi, Surabhi Srivastava said she uses a scarf to cover her nose and mouth, but it does not have any practical benefits.

"I would like to buy a mask and/or an air purifier, but they are quite expensive, and while they might be useful in the short term, air pollution in New Delhi is a structural problem that requires a more comprehensive long-term solution," said Srivastava.

Lise Wagnac in Beijing said that in the first week of her stay at the city, she had already felt the harmful effects of air pollution.

"I've had chronic chest pain and hard time breathing on a daily basis. I never realized the impact of pollution before moving to Beijing," said Wagnac.

In Hanoi, Vietnam, Dan Buckley said he and his wife have become "air-quality evangelists." He said despite wearing a mask outside, one will still feel the side effects of air pollution, which often include sore lungs, headaches, and an irritated throat.

Why Are Levels of Air Pollution Rising?

Volumes of PM2.5 are increasing because of several reasons.

Turkey's Çalışır said rapid industrialization, irregular urbanization and heavy traffic are all factors that worsen air pollution not just in Turkey, but also worldwide.

In China, the country's heavy reliance on coal has negative effects to the atmosphere. Air pollutants in the country also have the ability to travel far from their sources, thus spreading the toxicity.

Coal is often used for heating in China's Northeast cities, which are blanketed in cold weather. Berkeley Earth scientist Rohde said cold weather conditions trap air pollutants close to the ground, thus increasing pollution.

Make Cities Livable Again

Amid all the rising levels of smog, authorities in China have vowed to make its cities "livable" again.

"The government will take a more sophisticated approach to its urban planning and encourage enterprises and citizens to participate in creating the cities of the future," revealed a statement by Xinhua news agency.

The plan is part of China's goal to improve its urban planning, where authorities will emphasize on the "harmony between people and nature."

Photo : Antonio Foncubierta | Flickr 

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