Denied the right to clean air, Pakistanis choke on toxic smog
Pollution in any form, whether it is air pollution or water pollution, poses an environmental risk to the health of the population exposed to it.
Poor air quality is recognized as a major public health problem and the cause of an estimated 4.2 million premature deaths globally, mainly from heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and acute respiratory infections in children. According to the World Health Organization, around 7 million people die every year from exposure to fine particulate matter in polluted air. These are staggering statistics for a cause which can be easily averted.
Breathing clean air is a basic human right, just as access to clean drinking water is. With high concentrations of particulate matter, cities in Pakistan are topping the list of the world's most polluted. This prompts a closer look at the problem from the perspective of health and welfare of younger generations being exposed to harmful pollutants that can affect their well-being long-term. Recent studies published in reputable public health journals show a strong correlation between in-utero exposure to air pollution and child growth indicators. Early childhood exposure to particulate matter in ambient air, especially high levels of PM 2.5, causes stunting. It jeopardizes life earnings due to poorer cognitive ability and other illness, affecting the human capital of the country.
Breathing clean air is a basic human right, just as access to clean drinking water is.
Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba
Lahore is considered one of the most polluted cities in the world for its air quality index which was classified as “hazardous” by the US Consulate in the city's Air Quality Monitor feed. It is quite shocking to know that Pakistan’s second largest city has not had a single day of healthy air this year.
While Amnesty International, for the first time ever, issued an “urgent action” call on behalf of Lahore residents, considering dire air pollution a human rights violation, the response from concerned ministries and their top bosses was not only delayed but also disappointing and inadequate.
The not-so-informed minister of state for climate change, Zartaj Gul, blamed the toxic smog on India. The reality is that nothing has been done to avert this problem by successive governments in the last few years. The onus is on the policy makers to identify and mitigate the causes of this menace. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any concrete action. Quite the opposite, as some voices in the top echelons of the government deem air pollution a fabrication by the foreign media.
As usual, the political approach to the problem is reactive and not proactive.
Pakistan is at a crossroads in terms of its demographic profile. Sixty-four percent of the population is below the age of 30, out of which 29 percent is between the ages of 15 and 25. They are exposed to prolonged periods of outdoor activity, including going to schools, colleges, and participating in sports. They are, hence, more exposed to the hazardous toxins in the air, including PM 2.5 – particulate matter so small that it can easily enter the bloodstream, posing a grave threat to health.
Targeted interventions that keep in mind the population at risk can have a far-reaching impact. Failure to undertake them may have a devastating impact on the health of our nation.
Too little is being done. We need to have strong, health-based air pollution standards to reduce the risk and harm to people’s health, and to accelerate the transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean, safer sources of energy. We need to change the archaic agricultural practice of burning crop residue, and levy penalties against farmers who are involved in such practices. It is also the responsibility of the government to declare a state of emergency on days when the air pollution index reaches hazardous levels, rather than pretending all is well, since it directly puts the lives and safety of the population at risk.
Our aim should be to secure stronger air pollution standards, based on the World Health Organization's guidelines, and these should be accessible in the public domain.