‘135,000 die of bad air quality each year in Pakistan’

Updated November 15, 2019

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Students wear masks as they go to school amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore on November 14, 2019. — AFP/File
Students wear masks as they go to school amid heavy smog conditions in Lahore on November 14, 2019. — AFP/File

LAHORE: Environmental activists and medical practitioners, including the representatives of the Young Doctors Association (YDA), held a demonstration and talk outside the Jinnah Hospital on Thursday regarding the smog crisis in the provincial capital.

In an air quality index (AQI) of around 450, those gathered demanded the provincial government show what concrete steps it had taken to control the air pollution levels. An online petition is also being circulated where doctors’ demands were made.

Dr Zulfiqar Mir who was leading the demonstration said that according to a research by The Lancet (a health journal) shocking number of at least 135,000 people, most of them children, die annually in Pakistan, only because of air pollution.

Research by Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) has pointed out that Lahore residents have started facing a reduction of life expectancy by five years.

“Most doctors themselves are unaware of enormity of the situation that’s why they have not taken the call till now. They should treat this as a campaign like they do dengue and smoking,” Mr Mir said.

He termed epidemiological research as integral to know where we stood to measure the burden of smog.

Environmental activist Aysha Raja spoke about the substandard fuel being a major culprit in the contribution of particulate matter 2.5. She said while the world standard was set at Euro 6 emission standards, the Punjab Clean Air Action Plan had set its own standards which were only at Euro 4; however, even that was not being followed.

“We are currently still at Euro 2 perhaps,” she said and mentioned the high sulphur content causing a huge problem.

Currently, the desired limit of sulphur in fuel is at Euro 6 which is 5 to 10 parts per million or 0.0005g/km. But High Speed Diesel Pak-2 standard for example has 1,000 parts per million.

Students from the Huqooq-i-Khalq Movement said that they would be making climate change and the air pollution issue a major part of their student solidarity march happening on Nov 29. They expressed their anger at the indifference being shown by the government.

Parents had also gathered to protest against the health impacts of pollution.

Nida Usman Chaudhry, a participant, likened the smog crisis impact to being almost as scary as a terrorist attack.

Dr Aliya from the Jinnah Hospital said the government should give out PM2.5 masks free, especially to those of lower socioeconomic classes, because they could not afford spending Rs300 on one mask. Sanitary workers and traffic police should get these masks as they are most exposed, she said.

In the demonstration, it was reiterated that the pollutants of the greatest health concern were the fine airborne particulates produced by combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, both PM 10 but PM 2.5 being far worse. The particulate air pollution has been linked to heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive lung disease, lung cancer, premature birth, dementia, and adverse effects on brain development.

The group demanded in their petition that measures detailed by the report of the Commission on Smog 2018 must be implemented. These include publicisig data and findings of air pollution impacts, development of health emergency responses at district level, the passage of the Punjab Clean Air Act to define emission and demarcate areas for clean-up, declare Smog Days when the average PM 2.5 level exceeds unhealthy levels of above 35.4 kg/m3 and the AQI exceeds 151. During this time, the children are to be kept home from school and parks are closed as these concentrations of pollutants in the air constitute a public health emergency.

Other than this, they demanded that school buses, odd-even days, and carpooling for all children travelling more than 1km to school should be encouraged and implemented, hotspots be identified (where the concentration of PM 2.5 is highest) and institute strict controls on the volume of traffic and vehicular emissions passing through, expand public transport infrastructure, shut down industrial units operating without emission control equipment, and close down coal-fired plants and transition to cleaner energy sources as a medium to long-term strategy, within 2-3 years.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2019

Correction: An earlier version of this story had erroneously stated that 135,000 people die annually in Lahore only because of air pollution. The error is regretted.