Thousands of schools close as smog envelopes India, Pakistan

Indian shcoolboys walk amid heavy smog near the Indian Gate monument in New Delhi on November 9, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 09 November 2017
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Thousands of schools close as smog envelopes India, Pakistan

NEW DELHI: Schools closed across large swathes of north India on Thursday as a hazardous fog of toxic pollution cloaked the region for a third day, with growing calls for urgent government action to tackle what doctors are calling a public health emergency.
Punjab’s government said it was closing all 25,000 schools in the state for the rest of the week due to the acrid air blanketing north India and parts of neighboring Pakistan.
The decision came a day after Delhi authorities ordered all 6,000 schools in the capital to shut until Sunday.
Low winds and the annual post-harvest burning of crop stubble in Punjab and neighboring areas have caused the levels of dangerous pollutants in the air to spike to many times the levels considered safe.
Air quality typically worsens before the onset of winter as cooler air traps pollutants near the ground and prevents them from dispersing into the atmosphere, a phenomenon known as inversion.
Figures on the US embassy website showed levels of PM2.5 — the smallest particulates that cause most damage to health — spiked at over 1,000 on Wednesday afternoon in Delhi, though by Thursday they had fallen to 590.
The World Health Organization’s guidelines say 25 is the maximum level of PM2.5 anyone can safely be exposed to over a 24-hour period.
Doctors say the microscopic particles can penetrate deep into the lungs, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“Delhi once again has become a veritable gas chamber with denizens finding it difficult to breathe,” The Times of India said Thursday, joining growing calls for government action to curb the chronic pollution, which the Indian Medical Association this week termed a public health emergency.
“Air pollution during winter months has become a catastrophe for large parts of north India,” the country’s most read English-language newspaper said in an editorial blaming “political apathy.”
“It’s high time the question is asked: why can’t authorities enjoying jurisdiction over the national capital of an aspiring great power... come up with concrete measures to tackle the world’s worst air pollution.”
As pressure mounted on the government, authorities in Delhi ordered a ban on all construction work and barred lorries from entering the city.
Around 50,000 mostly diesel-fueled lorries pass through India’s capital every night and they are a major contributor to the pollution plaguing the city.
It is the second year running that Delhi — now the world’s most polluted capital with air quality worse than Beijing — has faced such high levels of PM2.5.
Media reports said the thick smog had also led to a series of road accidents in north India.
Eight students were killed late Wednesday when a truck plowed into them as they waited for a bus on a roadside in Punjab.
Since 2014, when WHO figures showed the extent of the crisis, authorities in Delhi have closed power plants temporarily and experimented with taking some cars off the road.
But the temporary measures have had little effect.
Under pressure to respond, Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Thursday sought to blame stubble burning by farmers in neighboring states.
“We we will continue facing this every year until the neighboring state governments resolve the issue of crop burning,” he told reporters in Delhi.
The practice of burning crop stubble remains commonplace in north India despite an official ban.
Kejriwal said his government would decide in the next day or two whether to reintroduce restrictions on driving cars in the city.


China factory blast death toll jumps to 64, man rescued after 40 hours

An aerial view shows a chemical plant after an explosion in Yancheng in China's eastern Jiangsu province early on March 22, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 12 min ago
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China factory blast death toll jumps to 64, man rescued after 40 hours

  • The blast occurred on Thursday at the Chenjiagang Industrial Park in the city of Yancheng, in Jiangsu province
  • The company produces more than 30 organic chemical compounds, some of which are highly flammable

BEIJING: The death toll in a chemical plant explosion in China rose to 64 Saturday but rescuers found a survivor among more than two dozen still missing in the debris of one of the country’s worst industrial accidents in recent years.

Thursday’s explosion in the eastern city of Yancheng injured hundreds and flattened an industrial park.

The local fire brigade pulled a man in his 40s from the rubble of the destroyed chemical plant around dawn on Saturday, according to a statement on the city government’s official Weibo account.

He was taken to hospital for treatment, the statement said, without giving further detail of his status or injuries.

Rescuers are looking for 28 people who are still missing, Yancheng mayor Cao Lubao said in the statement.

“The identities of the dead and the missing are being confirmed through interviews with family members, home visits and DNA tests,” Cao said.

More than 600 people have received medical treatment following the blast, according to the city government.

Among them, 21 are critically injured and 73 are seriously injured, the statement said.

The explosion toppled several buildings in the industrial park and caused a huge fire that raged through the night, while rescuers scrambled to find survivors in the plant’s wreckage.

Hundreds of rescuers were dispatched to the scene, local authorities said, and some 4,000 people have been evacuated from the blast site.

The force of the explosion — which was so powerful that it apparently triggered a small earthquake — blew out windows and dented metal garage doors of buildings as far as four kilometers from the site.

Nearby residents — many of them elderly — were seen sweeping up glass, and in some cases appeared to have abandoned their homes entirely.

The city government said some 89 houses were damaged beyond repair and families were resettled after demolishing those structures.

The government said it was also repairing blown-in doors and windows in 10 school buildings near the site so that all schools in the area can resume classes Monday.

Local authorities investigating the cause of the accident said an unspecified number of people were taken into police custody on Friday.

The facility involved in the explosion belonged to Tianjiayi Chemical, a firm with 195 employees established in 2007 that mainly produces raw chemical materials including anisole, a highly flammable compound.

Tianjiayi Chemical has a history of violating environmental regulations, according to online records from Yancheng city’s environment and ecology bureau.

In 2015 and 2017, the firm was fined for violating rules on solid and water waste management.

Several residents told AFP they were concerned about pollution from the industrial accident.

“We don’t have drinkable water here,” one 60-year-old woman surnamed Xiang said. “Why hasn’t the government sent us some water?“

According to a report released Friday by Jiangsu province’s ecology and environment department, several rivers near the blast site are contaminated with chemicals, including chloroform and dichloromethane.

But the city government said Saturday that “continuous environmental monitoring data show that pollution indicators are within the normal range, and the drinking water... is not affected.”

Authorities said they had also dammed a tributary to the nearby Xinfeng River to prevent any “outflow of sewage from the chemical industrial park.”

An aerial view of the blast area showed a large swathe of destruction in the industrial park, where multiple fires had raged.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze Friday after battling raging flames through the night. Three chemical tanks and five other areas had been on fire.

Deadly industrial accidents are common in China, where safety regulations are often poorly enforced.

In November, a gas leak at a plant in the northern Chinese city of Zhangjiakou, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, killed 24 people and injured 21 others.

In 2015, China saw one of its worst industrial accidents when giant chemical blasts in the northern port city of Tianjin killed at least 165 people.