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A marathon in a gas chamber

8945261 - delhi - october 28: men running on track at marathon on october 28th, 2007 in delhi, india.
Competitors run in the Delhi Half Marathon.

Pollution may have reached emergency proportions in Delhi, but it has not dissuaded a record number of people signing up to compete in its half marathon tomorrow. 

The Airtel Delhi Half Marathon this year has witnessed 40,633 people sign up, despite the numerous health risks of running in such conditions. Exposure to pollutants such as PM2.5 and PM10 increases the risk of a plethora of diseases including cancer and cardiovascular and lung diseases. Some research suggests that the number of pollutants inhaled increases fivefold during exercise. 

Despite air quality in the national capital plummeting, almost 10,000 more people have signed up for the race compared to last year. The race begins and concludes at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The half-marathon takes place alongside a five-kilometre race, a ten-kilometre race, and a senior citizens’ race. 

The decision to permit the marathon to go ahead has come under fire from experts. “Just two weeks before the odd-even scheme comes into play, how have the civic authorities allowed more than 30,000 people to expose themselves to toxic air?” queried Dr Desh Deepak, the senior chest physician at Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. However, event organisers have said they are prepared. 

“We have successfully deployed measures to curb air pollution,” said Vivek Singh, joint managing director of Procam International, which organises the event. “We will spray water across the route with water jets. The water that we are going to spray is mixed with a certain kind of chemical effluents which will help further precipitation of suspended particulate matter. As ascertained by multiple experts, the eco-friendly agent binds with the dust and reduces the volume of suspended particulate matter and when the water which has been sprayed on the roads starts vaporizing, it creates a safe and clean channel for runners to run. 

“Secondly, the entire course will be washed with an ecologically safe reagent, mixed with effluent treated water to avoid the rise of dust. Thirdly, any kind of debris, sand or pile of mud is being cleared off the route. And finally, we have deployed a Bangalore-based company who have technology that significantly reduces PM 2.5 and PM 10 suspended particulate matter from the air and creates an ambient zone – at least about three kilometres in radius.” In addition, medical teams and facilities will staff the route to offer assistance to runners who need it. 

This pollution season is an annual occurrence in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in India and the world. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal recently described the city as a “gas chamber”, amidst the burning of crop residue in neighbouring states and local sources of pollution such as vehicular emissions driving a pollution crisis exacerbated by temperature changes with the withdrawal of the monsoon rains. 

The Delhi government is enacting a winter emergency plan to tackle pollution, but no matter the scope of the crisis, the marathon runners will not be deterred. However, organisers are optimistic. 

“The air quality is a concern and will remain a concern, there is no question about it,” Singh acknowledges. However, he maintains “The measures that we take for those few hours to give our runners a good experience have worked in the past.”

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