Every breath you toxic

By Adeela Akmal
Tue, 06, 19

Do you remember the last time you saw a clear blue sky than a grey one in Pakistan.....

Air pollution is a global public health emergency affecting 90 per cent of the population worldwide, especially in south and east Asia. In light of World Environment Day, observed annually on June 5th, You! takes a look at the ‘invisible’ threat and its impact in Pakistan ...

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) termed air pollution as a ‘global public health emergency’ as the very air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted. WHO stated that “nine out of ten people now breathe polluted air, which kills seven million people every year; and one-third of deaths are from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease, all due to air pollution.”Do you remember the last time you saw a clear blue sky than a grey one in Pakistan, especially in a city like Karachi just by the sea? Can you imagine a time when you actually breathed in ‘fresh’ air? Every minute of every day, we breathe around 25,000 times a day which is inhaling about 11,000 litres of air. Unfortunately, with this air, we are also breathing in poison. We can live without eating or drinking for a few days but we cannot survive without breathing. Think of the repercussions if the air you are breathing is poisoned.

Each year World Environment Day is organised around a theme that focuses on a particularly pressing environmental concern. The theme for 2019, ‘Beat Air Pollution’, is a call to action to combat this global crisis. Chosen by this year’s host, China, the topic invites us all to consider how we can change our everyday lives to reduce the amount of air pollution we produce, and thwart its contribution to global warming and its effects on our own health. In this regard, this week You! talks to Abid Omar, founder of Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI), and Environmental Lawyer Rafay Alam to find out more about the air pollution in Pakistan.

A global public health emergency

Air pollution is hard to escape, whether you are rich or poor, it is all around us and will affect us dangerously. Microscopic pollutants in the air can slip past our body’s defences, penetrating deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain. Moreover, kidney disease appears to be influenced by air pollution, along with Alzheimer’s disease and even the skin is affected, ageing more rapidly in the dirty air. And the most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of air pollution are children, elderly and pregnant women.

Recent studies conducted on babies and children have shown particularly worrying results. It was found that toxic air significantly increases the risk of low birth weight, leading to lifelong damage to health. It is also causing millions of premature births, birth defects and cot deaths as pollution particles were found in mothers’ placentas. Pregnant women who are exposed to this pollution will have an effect on the foetus’ brain growth leading to cognitive impairment or even miscarriages. The health effects of air pollution are serious since it is like having an equivalent effect to that of smoking tobacco. This is why air pollution is also linked to childhood cancers.

Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg because ubiquitous exposure to air pollution is likely to damage the health of almost everyone in some way, even if it doesn’t lead to visiting a doctor. And the worst part is that the lack of visible smog is no indication that the air is healthy. Across the world, both cities and villages are seeing toxic pollutants in the air exceed the average annual values recommended by WHO’s air quality guidelines.

Air pollution in Pakistan

So how polluted can the air be before it starts to affect our health? WHO guidelines say the maximum safe level is an annual average concentration of P.M 2.5 (Fine Particulate Matter) at 10 g/m3 or less. Unfortunately, air quality in Pakistan exceeds safe limits in all major cities, with Lahore 10 times worse than national guidelines. About 135,000 deaths per year are attributed to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, making it the leading cause of sickness and death in Pakistan, as well as reduced life expectancy by 60 months.

Although, governments worldwide are mandated to monitor air quality in order to formulate policies to meet and enforce environmental standards, Pakistan lacks data due to little to no monitoring on an official level. However, the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI) - founded by Abid Omar in 2016 - is working to provide community-driven air quality data and resources to increase social awareness regarding air pollution. The initiative has set up around 25 low-cost, real-time monitors to capture air quality data across major cities of the country.

The polluted air generally contains a range of substances including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxide, ground-level ozone, particulate matter (P.M 2.5), sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, and lead - all of which are harmful to human health. The monitors set up by PAQI are 99 per cent accurate and measure P.M 2.5 in the air which is the deadliest pollutant. Abid informs, “When I started working, I came up with the WHO Global Ambient Air Quality database which is updated every year. In 2016, it showed that our cities were in the top 10-20s most polluted in the world. But the data they showed was outdated from almost 10 years ago; which triggered the question of what it was like now. Now, we know that Lahore is among the worst in the world but it’s not just Lahore, it is all of Punjab including Faisalabad, Bhawalpur, Multan and Sialkot.”

We hardly have any good air days which has P.M 2.5 below 12 g. In fact, in some cities the monitor readings show unhealthy to hazardous levels. “People think that the air pollution is high in winter months because it’s a smog season but the reality is that every day, we breathe unhealthy to very unhealthy air, like in Lahore as reported by our monitors. Just because you can’t see it and the sky seems blue, it doesn’t mean the air is not polluted. That’s why we need the monitors to be able to judge that,” he adds.

What is causing all of this pollution?

While not all air pollution comes from human activity but majority of it is human-caused. Main sources of pollutants come from transport vehicles, industries, waste burning, household and farming. For Pakistan, the common sources are transport, brick kilns and open waste burning. Like in Karachi, there is no proper waste collection available and you can find countless open spaces where the trash is ablaze. Agriculture is also a contributor of air pollutants due to the crop residue burning and fertilizers as it contains nitrogen.

“A lot of the pollution comes from transportation because Pakistan receives low quality of diesel (2-D) which releases huge amounts of sulfur and carbon dioxide gas in the air which causes smog and climate change. There are a lot of vehicles that run on diesel like trucks used for transporting goods up the country, buses for travel and agricultural machinery. Even if the vehicles consuming diesel are new with filters, the quality of the fuel itself is low and has huge amounts of sulfur in it. If we can regulate our fuel quality standards the quality of air will change overnight,” explains Abid.

Environmental lawyer, Rafay Alam further explains the scenario, “There are various international fuel standards, the most familiar being the ‘Euro Standard’ which includes Euro-1, Euro-2 and you get better fuel as you go higher. Some Pakistani refineries operate at Euro-2 level, and I believe that Pakistan imports the furnace oil that isn’t on the Euro standards. In other words, it’s some of the dirtiest fuels available in the world and nowhere near the cleanliness level of Euro-5 or even Euro-6. India, for example, has reached Euro-4 and is in works to get to Euro-6. We are somewhere between not being on the Euro Standard to Euro-2 standard. And currently, there is a highway being built across the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, so we would potentially be putting 10,000 diesel trucks carrying some of the worst quality of diesel emitting carbon, into some of the most sensitive environments in the world where the glaciers are.”

Apart from fuel, there is an issue of brick kilns in the country and factories operating without any check and balance, “There are around 8000 operational brick kilns in Punjab alone, not counting a few hundred around Islamabad. Brick kilns are an antiquated technology to make bricks. They use freshly-made coal from woods and then mix with rubber, tyres or whatever plastics they can burn to add to the energy to that fire. While cement factories are also highly polluting but there are ways to control the pollution. If we can do that, a single cement factory can replace 8000 brick kilns. Similarly, in industries, our factories aren’t checked, like in Punjab we have a lot of factories using furnace oils, their waste is untreated, factories producing tyres, plastics, rubbers again etc. People used to believe that burning crops or coal are the cause of pollution but they are just tip of the iceberg. The major cause is still low-quality fuel consumptions,” tells Abid.

What are the authorities doing?

“There are various things that you can do to fix air quality, for example, stop crop burning, crackdown on brick kilns. Earlier this year, the government of Punjab and the Food and Agriculture organisation issued a report which analysed the various other pollutants that comprise the air quality in Punjab today. They concluded that a vast majority - we’re talking about 60 per cent of the air pollutants present in our air - come from the transport and the industrial sectors. And then about 20-25 per cent comes from the crop burning and other things. If you are talking about crop burning and brick kilns, this is the responsibility of the Agricultural Department for the crops burning and then the Environment Protection Agency to make sure that the industry doesn’t exceed their limits for pollution. When it comes to things like cleaning fuel, it is the Federal Government’s realm because they are responsible for making sure that oil and gas used in Pakistan meet international standards,” shares the Environmental Lawyer, Rafay Alam.

According to him, in Pakistan today, nothing is being done about air quality in KP, Balochistan and Sindh on any official level. In Punjab, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) formulated a policy for taking action on smog due to the Lahore High Court public interest litigation few years ago. Last year, a suo moto was taken by the Supreme Court on the air quality. The government of Punjab has also formulated an action plan but they are not following it. Nothing has been done about it and that is because the EPA and Government of Punjab are understaffed and under budgeted for the task at hand. “In order to have effective air quality policy, the very first and basic thing the EPA needs to have is air quality testing equipment to tell what is the air quality like and how much the factories are polluting. They only have 4-5 monitors, which is insufficient to work with in a province with 80,000 active industrial units. Realising this capacity constraint, the previous government created a project called PC-1to improve the capacity of EPA with a request for one billion rupees to buy the equipment. But PC-1 hasn’t moved at all because the government didn’t have sufficient funds and after the IMF programme there is no hope that the federal government or provincial government will allocate money to something like environment control. This is the institutional side of the problem,” he laments.

Regarding the transport, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources and the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) is responsible. Rafay also tells that there is no plan of action to improve the fuel used by the transport sector and any of the furnace oil that we use in our power generation sector. This is one of the dirtiest fuels available in the market and fixing that will require our refineries to invest billions of dollars to upgrade their refinery capacity and that’s not happening any time soon either. “Since the EPA is understaffed and doesn’t have the metres to tell how bad the air is, people like Abid are instrumental in providing such information. However, the previous and current government do not rely on these metres simply rejecting them on the grounds they are too cheap. However, about a month ago US Consulate in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore have put up on their rooftop very sophisticated and expensive air quality monitor equipment which is now online. The authorities cannot avoid the issue now as you can go online at and see for yourself,” he emphasises.

How can we protect ourselves?

The thing about air pollution is that it is unavoidable and improving the air quality requires major structural changes. However, Pakistan won’t be the first country to go through them. The Great Britain that started the coal industry has steadily decreased its coal usage to zero. LA solved its air problem by improving transportation, planning about free-flowing traffic rather than stopping it at every traffic light. Even India has stopped many of its coal power plant projects because renewable energy is cheaper with less investment and running cost. So, there is a silver lining.

But, the first thing you have to do is protect yourself. Wear masks (even a surgical mask helps) and avoid walking to places during rush hour, especially with children. Invest in an air purifier, it costs a lot less than an AC and doesn’t even consume much electricity. You can then contribute by not using your generators (use UPS instead), limit your AC usage and don’t take unnecessary car trips. We can advocate to bring in more affordable electric vehicles and work to eliminate the old engine vehicles.

“There is a movement happening in London to improve the air quality and the mayor Sadiq Khan is trying his best to get rid of the diesel trucks because children are exposed to the fumes. London is sparking such radical changes at an AQI (Air Quality Index) of about 55 which is 10 times less than Karachi and 50 times less than Lahore. I’m sitting in Lahore this morning with a value of 250. It is a clear difference of what happens when people are not responsible. It’s the responsibility of the government to make sure that its citizens are safe and when you educate the people, they will start to question things. They will make sure that government does something about the industries producing huge amounts of pollutants. If nothing else, if you are looking for an impact, just make sure that we are not getting the filthiest diesel in the world to put into our IPPs (Independent Power Producers) to get the electricity that we consume. And the thing about improving the air quality is that it’s beyond just an individual’s efforts. I often contrast it with doing something to save water, from turning the tap off while showering to eating less meat, but everything you do with air quality has to do with the public. There is nothing I can do individually other than stop using my car. Air quality activism is unique as it requires social and political collective action,” concludes Rafay.