Air pollution high at U17 World Cup in India

NEW DELHI — The stadiums are renovated, the publicity posters hung. But not everything was ideal for players at the Under-17 World Cup in India, where air pollution was beyond recognized safe levels in the six cities staging games.

In the hours before the first matches on Friday, lung-clogging particulate matter known as PM2.5 hovered above 170 micrograms per cubic meter in New Delhi – or 17 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe, and more than four times higher than India’s own standards.

Meanwhile, concentrations of PM2.5 in Mumbai were also considered unhealthy, registering in some places at 180 mcg per cubic meter.

The high levels are hardly surprising. At least 10 cities in India are among the world’s 20 most polluted.

“If you apply World Health Organization standard as a measure, you’ll find it difficult to hold any kind of international sports event in any city of India,” said Anant Sudarshan, India director at the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago.

Given the dangers air pollution poses to soccer players running hard on a field in 90-minute games, some of the host cities had plans for curbing pollution in the short term. The eastern city of Kolkata, which will host 10 matches including the final, directed officials to monitor car emissions within four kilometers (2.5 miles) of the stadium and to police waste burning.

In New Delhi, where authorities warned that pollution would likely worsen over the weekend, environment ministry officials held a meeting to consider possible action.

Among the opening matches on Friday, the United States beat India 3-0 in the Indian capital. Among the attendees was Prime Minister Narendra Modi. New Zealand held Turkey to 1-1 in Mumbai, and two-time champion Ghana beat Colombia 1-0 in New Delhi.

The air pollution menace, however predictable, raised little concern with FIFA, according to Joy Battacharya, who heads the local organizing committee.

“We have not received any complaint from any participating player or official,” Bhattacharya said in Kolkata.

Players and coaches were more concerned about preparations for their games.

“Our full concentration is on football, and we do not get anyway affected with all this (pollution),” Colombia coach Orlando Restrepo told a pre-tournament news conference. “We do not want to give any excuses whatsoever. Nothing matters but just football.”

India aims to highlight its potential to stage global events by hosting its first major soccer tournament. It hopes it will erase some of the embarrassment that overshadowed the scandal-plagued Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010.

India has spent 1.2 billion rupees ($18.5 million) in renovating stadiums in New Delhi, Mumbai, Kochi, Goa, Guwahati, and Kolkata. Those cities, however, “regularly break international standards” for air quality, according to a report by Greenpeace released on Thursday.

“We’re not asking for rescheduling or cancellation of the matches,” said Sunil Dahiya, a Greenpeace campaigner who urged authorities to seek long-term solutions to clear the air. “Like the Chinese had during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, this can be our moment to seek comprehensive overhaul of our polluted air, on short-term and long-term basis.”


Associated Press writer Manik Banerjee in Kolkata and video journalist Manish Mehta in New Delhi contributed to this report.


Follow Aijaz Hussain at www.twitter.com/hussain_aijaz