In December 1952, a spell of cold weather in London, coupled with the burning of coal for heat, no rain and windless conditions, led to pollution accumulating in the environment and forming a blanket of smog that smothered the city. Most of the pollutants came from the burning of coal, which was used to provide heat to houses and power factories.
The official death toll that was reported once the fog dissipated after five days was 4,000. However, more recent reports state that the toll rose to 12,000. A majority of deaths were caused by the exacerbation of the existing respiratory conditions, especially among the elderly. The crisis resulted experts rethinking the dangers of air pollution.
Peering through the mists of time, everyone is aware of the cataclysmic events that followed Winston Churchill’s young assistant being run down by a bus due to low visibility on the roads. This was followed by Churchill’s famous speech on air pollution, which led to the environmental legislation like the City of London Act 1954 and Clean Air Act 1956.
Lahore and its adjacent cities are no different. A thick smog is gradually encompassing the rest of the country. Due to no visibility on the roads, schools, colleges and offices have been closed. Airports have either been shut down or airplanes are being redirected to other cities. Routine life is on standstill. The number of fatal road accidents has increased and hospital admissions due to respiratory complaints and eye infections are also on a rise. It is pertinent to understand that this is not an ‘act of God’. Instead, the causes are anthropogenic in nature. Lahore is now considered to be among the most polluted cities in Asia. As a result, air pollution is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed.
Recent estimates from the Global Burden of Disease Study and the World Health Organization state that between 5.5million and 7 million people die from air pollution every year. That’s more than the number of people who die from malaria and HIV/Aids put together. Air pollution is the fourth-highest risk factor for death across the global and is, by far, the leading environmental risk factor for diseases. Air pollution contributes to heart disease, strokes, lung cancer, bronchitis, emphysema and acute infections.
Around six percent of all global deaths occur due to air pollution, with seven million deaths occurring every year. Around 1.4 million deaths occur every year in China. This is followed by 645,000 deaths in India on an annual basis. China and India’s dependence on coal as a fuel and their fast-growing economies contributes to these figures. Pakistan ranks in the third position, with 111,000 total deaths every year due to pollution. Karachi is rated as the fifth most polluted city in the world.
According to a World Bank report on Pakistan, outdoor air pollution alone causes more than 80,000 hospital admissions per year, nearly 8,000 cases of chronic bronchitis and almost five million cases of upper respiratory infections in children under the age of five. The fragile health system of the Pakistan is ill-equipped to deal with this additional burden of diseases due to air pollution. The losses attributed to air pollution in terms of health care costs amount to around $500 million a year.
Highly inefficient energy use, the accelerated growth in vehicle population and vehicle kilometres travelled, increasing industrial activity without adequate air emission treatment or control, the open burning of solid waste – including plastic – and the use of ozone-depleting substances (ODSs) are some of the major causes of deterioration of ambient air quality.
The household sector is the largest single energy-consuming sector in Pakistan. Biomass fuel, wood, crop residue and dung account for 95 percent of the energy consumed by households in rural areas, with the share dropping to 56 percent in urban areas. Biomass combustion is a major source of indoor air pollution.
For a developing country like Pakistan, urbanisation has been a significant factor contributing to environmental degradation, especially through air pollution. The city of Lahore is choking under a thick veil of soot, dust and carbon particles. The smog in Lahore has crossed the international benchmarks. The level of PM 2.5, which is a hazardous particle in air that is injurious to health, has reached 450-500ug/m3 against the standard measure of 35ug/m3 per day. In any other developed city in the world, this would be declared an emergency situation and remedial action and legislation would be introduced by the government. However, the silence of the concerned authorities to implement remedial action plans to tackle this emergency does not bode well for the future of the country.
Across the world, there are a growing network of cities committed to cleaning the air and protecting the health of their citizens from air pollution by becoming a part of the BreatheLife Cities Network. In order to become part of this network, local governments in the respective cities have pledged to put their city on the journey to meet the WHO’s air quality guidelines by 2030.
Air pollution is one of those complex environmental problems where control through point-source reduction is considered to be the most desirable solution and the only way to prevent adverse health and other damaging impacts. Once emitted into the atmosphere, unlike other matrix/media, the recycling or re-use of the emitted products from the atmosphere is almost impossible. We have the relevant laws to divert such emergencies. However, we lack the will and capacity to implement and enforce these laws.
It is encouraging to know that the Lahore High Court has, on the directives of the chief justice, sought to declare a public health emergency over the smog. However, the reluctance of the provincial environment department to find remedial measures to tackle the situation is baffling. A reliable and robust air quality monitoring system and a weather forecasting system are essential to chalk out policies to combat the public health hazards that could arise from the smog. In addition, there’s a pressing need for strengthening the health system and sharing data among the relevant authorities and ministries to widely disseminate information to people and take preventive actions.
The writer is a freelance consultant on environmental health issues.