Smog another environmental challenge

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Reema Shaukat

For the past few years, the cities of central Punjab are facing different kind of environmental pollution. Keeping aside the hazards caused by air pollution over the years to the world globally, the new phenomenon of Smog is different and difficult too. Smog is a kind of air pollution, originally named for the mixture of smoke and fog in the air. According to scientific basis, classic smog results from large amounts of coal burning in an area and is caused by a mixture of smoke and sulphur dioxide. Like any other kind of pollution, smog also affects humans and emerging as a problem in a number of cities and continues to harm human health.
Known as the atmospheric choking layer, some cities in Pakistan’s Punjab including Lahore are facing trouble because of smog for the past three years or so. Though it started from India where farmers are engaged in stubble or hay burning and because of wind direction in winters, the smog engulfs areas in Pakistan too. But with passage of time, every year this issue is getting critical and instead of blaming cross border pollution, we need some serious approaches to be made by government and public. According to the Air Quality Index developed by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help explain air pollution levels to the general public, eight-hour average ozone concentration of 85 to 104 ppbv are described as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups”, 105 ppbv to 124 ppbv as “unhealthy” and 125 ppb to 404 ppb as “very unhealthy.” Smog can form in almost any climate where industries or cities release large amounts of air pollution. Also the latest figures, issued by Amnesty International Levels of air quality have been rated “near unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” for most of the year in Punjab. During the “smog season” – from October to January – air quality reaches “hazardous” levels, as recorded by multiple, independent sources including the air quality monitors installed by the United States Consulate in Lahore and the crowd sourced data collated by the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative. The Air Quality Index (AQI) in one of days in Lahore reached 484. The threshold for hazardous levels of air quality is 300, where people were advised to avoid all physical activity outdoors. Prolonged or heavy exposure to hazardous air can result in severe health issues including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections and heart problems and shortened life expectancy hence putting at risk people’s right to life and to health, as well as the right to a healthy environment. The so-called “smog season” is where poor fuel quality, uncontrolled emissions and crop burning worsens the quality of the already unhealthy air, from October to December. Apart from hazardous breathing problems, low visibility during smog results in accidents and loss of life. It’s not only in Pakistan but because of rising air pollution in both neighbouring countries-India and Pakistan-Indian authorities recently had to declare a public emergency after pollution level in New Delhi became so high that experts said it was like smoking up to 50 cigarettes a day.
There is a number of ways to tackle air pollution and control smog. Interesting example from history is of UK, where thick smog used to frequently blanket the UK capital in the 19th and 20th centuries, when people burned coal to warm homes and heavy industry in the city centre pumped chemicals into the air. Referred to as “pea-soupers”, the most famous of these events was the so-called Great Smog of London in 1952.In 1956 the UK passed the Clean Air Act. It regulated both industrial and domestic smoke, imposing smoke control areas in towns and cities where only smokeless fuels could be burned and offering subsidies to households to convert to cleaner fuels. The act was extended in 1968, and air quality substantially improved in London through the following decades. China’s growing industrialization also brought challenge in the form of air pollution but the country tackled this issue wisely by cutting vehicle emissions, government incentives for private businesses, data transparency and diversifying the economy away from heavy industry to successfully cut pollution levels.
In case of Pakistan, steps and measures to reduce air pollution be taken on immediate grounds. Main contributing factors in smoke pollution are transport sector, followed by crop burning, waste burning and emissions from brick kilns and steel furnaces. It is important to note that air pollution is a silent killer, and according to official sources because of this hazard the economic cost of environmental degradation over the last decade has gone up by as much as three per cent, from six per cent to nine per cent and air pollution is contributing to 50 per cent of the total cost. One of the steps government is taking is to establish air quality monitoring stations which will provide more reliable data to make informed decisions and data will also be available to the public for awareness and preventive measures. Another step can be to help subsidise industries to shift away from pollutant technologies, which in turn will help reduce emissions. Vehicle inspection and certification systems can help cut the emissions in the transport sector. Enhancing the quality of fuel used in automobiles or shifting to electric powered cars can be another option to reduce pollution. The plantation campaign initiated by the government is another good initiative and clean and green Pakistan can be model for others to follow but for that consistent approach on all levels is must. Everyone at school, city or district level must ensure measures to keep the surroundings environment friendly.
— The writer works for Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, a think-tank based in Islamabad.

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