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Delhi declares health emergency over toxic smog

India has struggled to get in front of its pollution crisis. Reports have found that the country’s children may be facing permanent brain damage from poisonous air and that millions of Indians have already died from health problems connected to living in polluted cities.

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The problem is not confined to the capital. Urban areas across the country, from Mumbai in the west to Varanasi in the east, are all struggling with filthy air, lending India the distinction of having 15 of the world’s 20 most-polluted cities, according to a recent study.

But even as air pollution climbed to dangerous levels, some businesses in New Delhi kept their doors open, and patrons at higher-end restaurants chose to sit outside. Face masks were still a rare sight on streets, and many politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, refrained from publicly acknowledging the problem.

Over the past few years, India’s environmentalists have warned about the long-term effects of sustained exposure to air pollution levels that can reach the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. A recent report found that major causes of pollution in the capital and surrounding cities, a metropolis of more than 46 million people, were construction dust, vehicle emissions and burning of agricultural waste.

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