KARACHI: Highlighting how public health and safety is being compromised on account of a haphazard increase in the number of private vehicles on city roads, participants in a seminar on Thursday urged the provincial government to introduce the desperately needed bus rapid transit (BRT) system in the city.
Air of Karachi, it was pointed out, had become highly polluted and studies had shown that the increase in air pollution was directly responsible for a rise in lung and cardiovascular diseases. Besides, there was a serious threat of mental retardation in newborns exposed to the high levels of lead in mother’s womb.
Titled ‘Sustainable transport, a solution to traffic issues in Pakistan,” the event was organised by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as part of its project funded by the United Nations Development Programme and Global Environment Facility.
Giving a presentation on the impact of transport emissions on human health, Dr Zafar Fatmi, head of a research group at the division of environmental health sciences of the Aga Khan University, said the impact of outdoor air pollution was much wider than what had been generally believed; it affected not just human health but also natural resources, agriculture and heritage, besides contributing to global warming and climate change.
Recently, he said, the World Health Assembly had declared air pollution as the world’s largest single environmental health risk.
“That means national health authorities have a key role to play and health concerns regarding air pollution should be integrated in all relevant policies,” he said.
“It also means that member states should develop air quality monitoring systems and set up registries for all illnesses related to air pollution.”
Continued exposure to air pollutants such as particulate matter (a mixture of suspended solid and liquid particles in air), carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, he said, were known to cause serious illnesses.
Citing recent studies conducted by the AKU in Karachi, he said the city had been found to have high levels of PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter that are so small that they can be detected only with an electronic microscope. Sources of fine particles include all types of combustion, including vehicles and power plants).
“The minimum and maximum PM2.5 level was 27µg/m3 and 278 µg/m3 while the annual mean was 88.5 µg/m3. However, according to the WHO guidelines, the PM2.5 level should be 15 µg/m3,” he explained with the help of a slide.
Sharing finding of a 2009 study in which the levels of exhaled carbon monoxide among roadside vendors and commuters in Saddar and Gadap towns were examined, he said that it was found that about 70 per cent people had higher levels of the toxic gas.
“In 2008, we conducted a study to determine lead levels in newly born babies for which we examined the blood of their umbilical cords. Shockingly, 90pc babies had lead levels above 5 56µg/dL (the standard earlier set for lead presence in the blood but now it is said that there should be zero exposure to the chemical as there is no safe level),” he said.
About the impact of lead exposure to health, he said that it affected intelligence and could potentially cause mental retardation in cases with higher lead levels.
Recommending measures, he said that improvement in fuel quality, vehicle technology, traffic management, public transport regulation and control could help control air pollution.
Giving a presentation on road safety implications of public transport, Dr Mir Shabbar Ali, head of the urban and infrastructure department of NED University of Engineering and Technology, explained the nature of road traffic collisions and the reasons resulting in crashes.
Apart from human factors that included driver’s skill, age, judgement, experience and attention, fault/s in the roadway, vehicle design and manufacturing, traffic control devices as well as the weather and visibility situation could also contribute to a traffic crash.
Citing an EU report of 2012, he said road fatalities were the lowest for buses (0.4pc), trams (3.3) and bicycles (6.6) while the ratio was the highest for cars (46.4pc) and motorbikes (17.7pc).
On Karachi, he said motorbikes were involved in 67pc accidents, followed by cars/taxi/van (18pc), bus/minibus/coach (8pc) and rickshaw (7pc).
He blamed the increasing use of motorbikes on the lack of an efficient public transport system and said that low- and middle-income group families were forced to use motorbikes as a mode of family transport.
The National Highway, Korangi Road, M.A Jinnah Road, Sharea Faisal, Superhighway, Hub River Road and Mauripur Road, he said, were some major roads frequently witnessing traffic accidents.
Earlier in his opening remarks, country representative of IUCN-Pakistan Mahmood Akhtar Cheema said the Pakstran project was being implemented with the help of the Sindh and Punjab governments.
“The $7.8m project focuses on the development of mass transit systems in Pakistan that are safe, clean and comfortable for citizens. The five-year project is aimed at reducing the growth of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
Syed Kamran Haider Naqvi and Fauzia Bilqis Malik, both from the IUCN, also spoke.
Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2015