Despite the extremely dangerous levels of air pollution plaguing Delhi and creating “gas chamber” conditions, thousands took to the streets to run a half marathon on Sunday. Many operate without masks that would filter out harmful pollutants.
In recent weeks, air pollution measurements around the sprawling megacity have been off the charts, hitting levels around 30 times considered safe by the World Health Organization. Authorities blamed the toxic smoke on far-flung seasonal crops in nearby areas as well as quiet winds and regular emissions from cars and factories.
The distraught doctors explained that it is dangerous to walk around in the smoke, not to run away. Thicker pollutants can cause asthma attacks, lung and heart damage, and sudden cardiac arrest, they warn. And they appealed to the race organizers and authorities to cancel or postpone the event, which was scheduled for November 19.
Last week, the Indian Medical Association tried a last-ditch effort to try to kill the plans, is appealing to the Delhi High Court to repeat the 21km race. But the organizers argued that they had taken precautions, and the event went ahead as planned. More than 30,000 runners braved the ranks on Sunday.
During the race, the level of fine particulate air pollution in the air—particles with diameters of 2.5 microns or less (PM2.5)—higher than 200 µg/m3. The World Health Organization considers levels below 25 µg/m3 to be safe. Sunday’s pollution levels came in as India’s “very poor” or “very poor”. A country-specific air quality index. At that stage, authorities recommend active adults and children avoid all outdoor exercise.
Runners had a mix of complaints about the situation; some fly in the wind while others complain about wearing masks that can slow them down.
“My eyes are burning, My throat is dry. I have a running nose,” Rohit Mohan, a 30-year-old runner, said The Guardian. Mohan, from the southern city of Bangalore, is among the few who wear masks. “It’s been worse since I got here yesterday,” Mohan added.
On the other hand, Abhay Sen complained to AFP about wearing a pollution mask: “Obviously it’s very difficult to breathe, so you’re not doing your best here, and you can’t take it off,” Sen said.
Others still think the weather is good for a marathon—no masks required. “It’s bright and fun. We simply love it,” said runner-up Saikat Banerjee.
One thing everyone can agree on is that the race conditions could have been worse. A week and a half ago, the levels of PM2.5 around town hit a staggering 640 µg/m3, better than the severe category. Recent rain helped bring smog levels down this weekend. And before the race, the organizers sprayed the course with salt water to try to stamp down the dust.
In the end, Ethiopian runner Berhanu Legese won the men’s race, finishing the half marathon in 59 minutes and 46 seconds. Ethiopian runner Almaz Ayana won the women’s race, clocking in at one hour, seven minutes and 11 seconds.