Horror Story

Gardiner Harris, writing in The New York Times Sunday Review, tells the story of the horrors of air pollution in New Delhi, India. Beijing is infamous for its murderous killer smog, but it seems that New Delhi is a great deal worse. Harris's article is entitled "Holding Your Breath in India" but a more descriptive title might be "How I inflicted Child Abuse Resulting in Severe Permanent Damage in Pursuit of the Story."

New Delhi

FOR weeks the breathing of my 8-year-old son, Bram, had become more labored, his medicinal inhaler increasingly vital. And then, one terrifying night nine months after we moved to this megacity, Bram’s inhaler stopped working and his gasping became panicked.

My wife called a friend, who recommended a private hospital miles away. I carried Bram to the car while my wife brought his older brother. India’s traffic is among the world’s most chaotic, and New Delhi’s streets are crammed with trucks at night, when road signs become largely ornamental. We undertook one of the most frightening journeys of our lives, with my wife in the back seat cradling Bram’s head.

When we arrived, doctors infused him with steroids (and refused to provide further treatment until a $1,000 charge on my credit card went through). A week later, Bram was able to return home.


We gradually learned that Delhi’s true menace came from its air, water, food and flies. These perils sicken, disable and kill millions in India annually, making for one of the worst public health disasters in the world. Delhi, we discovered, is quietly suffering from a dire pediatric respiratory crisis, with a recent study showing that nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren have irreversible lung damage from the poisonous air.

It's a grim but fascinating story. Mostly it is about his family's experience, but more generally about how much damage the megacity can do to its inhabitants. India has always been a dangerous place, but in crucial ways economic development and especially population growth have made it far more so.

Meanwhile, coal production in India, a government monopoly, has increased more that twenty-fold since 1950, and continues to increase exponentially.

And some people still think Malthus has been refuted.


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