Toxic firecracker haze darkens Indian capital after festival of lights

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Air pollution in New Delhi hit 18 times the healthy limit on Friday under a thick, toxic haze after a night of fireworks to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali - despite a court-ordered ban on their sales.

Residents of the sprawling Indian capital, which already ranks among the world's most polluted cities, complained of eyes watering and aggravated coughs as levels of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that reaches deep into the lungs, rose alarmingly.

Air quality usually worsens in New Delhi ahead of Diwali, the festival of lights, and the Supreme Court temporarily banned the sale of firecrackers, aiming to lessen the risk to health.

But many still lit fireworks across the capital late into the night, either using old stocks or buying them from neighboring states.

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Diwali, Hindu festival of lights
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Diwali, Hindu festival of lights
A devotee lights oil lamps at a religious ceremony during the Diwali or Deepavali festival at a Hindu temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People light lamps as they make a formation of a peace symbol on the eve of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, in Chandigarh, India, October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ajay Verma
A man lights a firecracker while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali, the annual festival of lights in Mumbai, India, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
A man holds a firecracker while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali, the annual festival of lights in Mumbai, India, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: People burst crackers on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', on October 19, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: People burst crackers on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', on October 19, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: A child protects her face amid heavy smog due to bursting firecrackers despite the ban imposed by the Supreme Court of India to keep a check on air pollution on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', at Mayur Vihar, on October 19, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: People burning crackers on the occasion of the Diwali festival 2017, Supreme Court of India banned crackers sales in the capital, on October 19, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: People burst crackers on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', on October 19, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: Bulidings lit up on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', on October 19, 2017 in Mumbai, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: Thane Police celebrates Diwali with Diyas at Thane Police Commissioner Office on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', on October 19, 2017 in Mumbai, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
MUMBAI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: Bulidings lit up on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', on October 19, 2017 in Mumbai, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 19: Children enjoy as they burst crackers on the occasion of Diwali festival, known as the 'festival of lights', at Mayur Vihar, on October 19, 2017 in New Delhi, India. Diwali is certainly one of the biggest, brightest and most important festivals of India. The celebration of Diwali as the 'victory of good over evil' refers to the light of higher knowledge dispelling all ignorance. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Wrestlers fight during an amateur wrestling match inside a makeshift ring installed on a road organised by local residents as part of Diwali, the festival of lights, celebrations in Kolkata, India, October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
People release fireworks while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Saleh Salem
An Indian girl releases a firecracker while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Saleh Salem
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Some environment activists said the court order was poorly enforced and firecrackers were still available to celebrate one of north India's biggest festivals.

"Breathe nitrate and ammonia, home grown, hand made!" said environmentalist Vimlendu Jha in a Twitter post calling for city authorities to declare a public emergency.

An index of air quality had crossed the "hazardous" limit of 300 on Friday, the most severe level on a U.S. embassy scale of measurement which rates a reading of 50 as good and anything above that as a cause for concern.

Some parts of Delhi such as Mandir Marg showed an air quality reading of 941, close enough to the maximum level of 999 beyond which no readings are available. The index measures concentrations of PM 2.5, PM 10, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide among other indicators.

(Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A hazardous level is an alert in which everyone may experience ill effects and are advised to stay indoors.

Apart from the firecracker ban, the Supreme Court also ordered diesel generators and a power plant to be shut down to try to reduce the pollution. The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority also ordered some brick kilns to close and a halt to the burning of rubbish.

Dipankar Saha, a scientist at the government's Central Pollution Control Board, said the still weather had also played a part in the toxic haze hanging over the city.

But pollution levels were better than at last year's Diwali when crop burning in nearby states and firecrackers combined.

"It was going to be hard to beat last year's level in any case," he said.

(Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani)

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