'Just leave': Delhi, Beijing and Mexico City residents on how to cope with pollution

Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi, Jo Tuckman in Mexico City and Lily Kuo in Beijing
Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

The east coast of Australia is in the grip of a bushfire and air pollution crisis. But plummeting air quality levels are a regular occurrence in cities in India, Latin America and China. Here, residents and experts from Delhi, Beijing and Mexico City explain how they survive the smog.

Delhi

“My advice? Stay indoors, lock all the windows and put an air purifier in every corner of your house,” said Rachna, 31, a resident of south Delhi. “What you lose in electricity bills, you gain in extra years of your life.”

Severe pollution has become an annual event in Delhi in October and November and as the thick brown smog shrouds the city, it is met with an almost obsessive compulsion by residents to check and discuss the air quality index (AQI).

“I would actually recommend people in other polluted cities don’t download any air quality apps,” said Amad Kumar, another Delhi resident. “They can ruin your life. Sometimes it’s better not to know how bad things are.”

Related: The big smoke: how bushfires cast a pall over the Australian summer

While wearing masks used to be viewed as ridiculous, the taboo has mostly disappeared and most Delhi residents recommend investing in a good quality mask.

But when the AQI hits emergency levels in Delhi, those who can stay inside. Food businesses and restaurants in Delhi reported a 10% decline in revenue during the recent pollution peak in November; in contrast, food home delivery app Swiggy reported an upsurge in business.

Nilanjana Roy, a Delhi-based author and columnist, said in the worst months she left the city “as often as I can for the Himalayas or for the Corbett forests. It’s a luxury most people don’t have, and it’s expensive, but it clears out my lungs a bit and gives me enough energy to keep going.”

When she does stay in Delhi, she calls on a variety of remedies to offset the health impacts of the pollution. “Yoga, pranayama (judiciously, not on the most polluted days) help with the constant low fevers and immune system problems,” said Roy. “Juicing, Vitamin C and D, turmeric tea, air purifiers, masks etc also help to a limited extent — but you can’t escape the environment.”

Stay indoors, lock all the windows

Rachna

However, some Delhi malls have capitalised on the bad conditions by installing huge air purifiers and drawing in crowds not for the shopping but for the oxygen. Meanwhile an oxygen bar, where people can pay for the privilege of breathing fragrant fresh air at an upscale Delhi mall, has been doing a booming business.

Nonetheless, even with these coping mechanisms, a recent survey found 40% of people wanted to move out of Delhi due to the severity of the pollution. Rachna took a similar stance. “The best thing to do when things get bad is just leave,” she said.

Mexico City

Ana Lilia Flores says Mexico City’s pollution has been the bane of her life. “My eyes water, my head hurts, and sometimes I also get short of breath,” the 51-year-old private security guard said. “The worst is this feeling of agitation.”

It doesn’t help that her job involves standing outside a shop beside a busy junction in the city centre for about 10 hours a day, nor that her commute often takes three hours of inching along traffic-choked highways in overcrowded buses.

So what does she do when the pollution gets really bad?

“I tuck my mouth and nose into the collar of my shirt and when I get home I wash my nose out with camomile tea and gargle with apple vinegar,” she said. “Other people use sprays from the pharmacy but my remedies work just as well and cost less.”

A thick layer of smog envelops the city of Puebla, south-east of Mexico City. Photograph: Jose Castanares/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico City’s pollution problem is far less acute today than it was in the 80s and 90s, when the metropolis that sprawls across a high-altitude valley surrounded by mountains was deemed to have the worst air quality in the world. Things got better because regulations forced factories out, cleaned up the petrol, and kept dirtier cars off the streets at least one day a week.

In recent years, however, the improvements have petered out and, while still far from the top of the world pollution tables, the air quality in the Mexican capital is rarely at WHO recommended levels. And while the issue has traditionally been ozone, fine particulate matter is now causing problems as well.

This spring the authorities declared a pollution emergency after wildfires around the city during windless days at the end of the dry season shrouded everything in a smoky haze. As well as pulling more cars off the roads and suspending construction projects, they also closed schools and urged parents to keep their kids at home with the windows shut.

The only thing to do is ignore it

Daniel Salazar

That emergency triggered a noticeable increase in residents seeking out things they could do to keep themselves healthier outside of emergencies.

It is no longer so unusual to see cyclists wearing masks, and lists of the best pollution-absorbing house plants have become Facebook staples. HEPA filter air purifiers are beginning to make an appearance in wealthier homes.

Karen Cámara thought about buying one, but shied away when she saw the price. Still, the 21-year-old student said she does seek to protect herself by exercising in a gym rather than out of doors.

“If the air was better I would run in a park, but I don’t think that is a good idea here,” she said.

But there are still many in Mexico City who prefer not to think about pollution or what it might be doing to their bodies.

“Sure, it’s bad, but this is the way it has always been and the only thing to do is ignore it,” said Daniel Salazar, who has been cleaning windscreens at a traffic light for 13 years. “Now when it rains, that’s when I worry, because that is when I can’t work.”

Beijing

Day to day, residents in Beijing are waging a fight against air pollution. Even as the city is expected to drop out of the list of the world’s 200 most polluted places to live, a dull smog often hangs low over Beijing, obscuring the skyline and sometimes filling underground subway stations with haze. In the winter, when the air tends to be worse, almost everyone on the street will be wearing face masks.

A paramilitary police officer wearing a mask stands guard in front of a portrait of the late Chairman Mao during smog at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

Most middle-class families have installed air purifiers in several rooms of their homes, and keep an air quality monitor nearby to measure the levels of particulate matter known as PM2.5, which damages the lungs.

Gyms, some restaurants, and offices are also often equipped with air purifiers. Ahead of winter, when pollution is at its worst, and during particularly bad spikes, there are increased sales of the purifiers, which can cost as much as 4,000 yuan (about $570). Some companies have begun selling cheaper, DIY purifiers.

Those with less money simply look out their windows to see whether the sun is shining, to determine whether they can leave their windows open and what kind of mask is needed that day. A range of apps tracking the air quality index in locations across the city update throughout the day.

Related: Pollutionwatch: China shows how political will can take on air pollution

Zou Yi, who runs a popular Weibo account called BeijingAirNow, has been taking photos of the skyscraper hosting China’s national broadcaster, CCTV, every day since 2013. He says the number of days where the building’s outline can be clearly seen has increased.

He has been working on an app that residents can use to take a photo of the air in a specific area, and use big data to predict the air quality.

“I’m glad air condition is getting better. The government has been trying different measures to tackle air pollution, and some measures did work,” he said.

“Most of my WeChat friends liked to post photos of blue sky, because blue sky was rare at that time. But now people are getting used to blue sky.”

In October, officials released a new “action plan” for air pollution control in Beijing and surrounding areas, to lower the density of PM2.5 another 4% by next March.