Global Editions

Is Breathing Killing Us?

Photo Credit: Dawn
by Nushmiya Sukhera

HAZE AND SMOG IN NORTHERN INDIA AND PAKISTAN

Air pollution is a severe and persistent problem at the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. The haze and pollution back up against the mountains and remain for weeks at a time, posing a severe health hazard. In addition, scientists are beginning to gather evidence that the widespread and persistent nature of the pollution is even modifying the regional weather, particularly rainfall patterns. The pollution comes from inefficient wood and dung-fueled heating and cooking devices, as well as forest fires and industrial waste. This image was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Aqua and Terra satellites.

Lung diseases, facemasks, and irritable eyes – a snapshot into the future of Pakistan without urgent air quality management programs. The extensive smog experienced in Lahore in November, 2016 kickstarted a long overdue conversation about the importance of air quality in the country. As a result, a petition filed in the Lahore High Court led the Government of Punjab (GOP) and the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (PEPA) to formulate an air pollution policy.
Read more: Diversifying Pakistan’s Water Resources

In Brief

  • A recent report by the State of Global Air states that while 92 percent of the world’s population lived in areas with unhealthy air in 2015, China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh experience the most extreme concentrations of air pollution.
  • In 2015, 4.2 million deaths took place due to long term exposure to PM 2.5, accounting for 7.6 percent of global deaths. Pakistan currently has the 5th largest number of deaths because of PM 2.5 exposure and is ranked 6th in the world for the most number of deaths from COPD in 2015.

A recent report by the State of Global Affairs states that while 92 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with unhealthy air in 2015, China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh experience the most extreme concentrations of air pollution.

Air pollution is mostly measured and monitored in terms of ambient fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and ozone concentrations in the atmosphere. PM 2.5 are airborne particles as small as 2.5 micrometers in aerodynamic diameter. A project on the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation has reported exposure to PM 2.5 as the fifth largest factor contributing to global mortality. However, to address the rapidly increasing air pollution in the country, it is important to know the kind of air pollution that is present. “Punjab has 36 districts and PEPA has a total of one air quality monitor for the entire province, that too at the back of a pickup van in Rawalpindi,” says Ahmad Rafay Alam, environmental activist and lawyer. “So if one wants to know the air quality of Lahore, the van will come down to the city and park somewhere for the day to measure it.”

Alam explains that usually for a city as big as Lahore, 10 to 15 air quality testing equipment would be required. These would be able to accurately tell how bad the air is, and what type of pollution is in the air because it is the type of pollution that tells you where it’s coming from. “We can blame the dust from industrial development and stop construction, only to find out it’s actually the automobiles that are causing it.”

Population weighted ozone concentrations, a leading factor in air pollution, has been on an increase as well. From 1990 to 2015, it has increased 7 percent globally. Increased ozone concentrations mean an increase in ozone precursors such as nitrogen oxides, coupled with warmer temperatures. The largest increase in the average population weighted ozone concentrations in the last 25 years has been experienced by China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Brazil. In the US and the European Union, ozone concentrations have seen a decline due to air quality management programs.

Also, 84 percent of the rural population in Pakistan and 14 percent of the urban population uses solid fuels for cooking. In turn, 37 percent of the total deaths from ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute lower respiratory infections are attributable to household air pollution. “Building codes need to be regulated in rural as well as urban areas,” says Syed Rizwan Mehboob, the Prime Minister’s focal person on climate change. “By ensuring that houses have open air cooking areas, indoor pollution can be controlled.” He explains that green solutions need to be made economical for people.

Read more: Lahore Cleans up Its Act

A scientific research has found that long term exposure to ambient air pollution increases mortality and morbidity from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer, reducing life expectancy. The diseases that are causally linked with exposure to ambient PM 2.5 are ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and lower respiratory infections (LRI’s). In 2015, 4.2 million deaths took place due to long term exposure to PM 2.5, accounting for 7.6 percent of global deaths. Pakistan currently has the 5th largest number of deaths because of PM 2.5 exposure and is ranked 6th in the world for the most number of deaths from COPD in 2015.

According to Mehboob, the GOP has not formulated a policy on air pollution as yet as it is a long and complicated process. “How do we convince farmers to stop their centuries old tradition of paddy burning because it’s harmful to the environment?” asks Mehboob. “Policy making is not even the problem – the problem is strict enforcement and monitoring which unfortunately is not possible overnight.”

While the government has not been able to deal with the issue timely and effectively, some concerned citizens have taken the matter in their own hands. Abid Omar, a Beijing-based Pakistani has installed air quality monitors in Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar. He tweets the measurements found on an hourly basis, in an attempt to create awareness about the looming dangers of air pollution nationwide. Omar cites the example of Beijing where once data on air pollution was made available to the public, it forced the government to take action. “I’m trying to get the same thing to happen in Pakistan,” he says.

Regardless, there is ample data now available both to the public and the government which highlights the dangers of air pollution in Pakistan. However, it remains an obscure topic of conversation. While a national policy will be a step in the right direction, a more pressing and immediate concern is to recognize that severe air pollution is now a reality in Pakistan.

Authors

Related posts

*

Top