Air pollution and us

Published: June 9, 2019
The writer is the Resident Coordinator United Nations Pakistan. He tweets @NeilBuhne

The writer is the Resident Coordinator United Nations Pakistan. He tweets @NeilBuhne

Most people know the story of the frog who happily sits in water that gradually gets warmer and warmer — and the frog does not notice until it is too late, and dies. Sadly we can draw parallels from the behaviour of this frog and us, as we slowly become enveloped in air pollution, oblivious to how it is slowly harming, and possibly killing us. From time to time something dramatic does happen, which should shake our complacency, such as the smog that enveloped Lahore last year. But we soon forget as soon as the smog lifts and we find ourselves again slowly suffocating.

According to the United Nations’ World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide ambient air pollution accounts for 29% of all deaths and diseases of lung cancer, 17% from acute lower respiratory infection, 24% from stroke, 25% from ischemic heart disease and 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter, can cause other cancers in addition to lung cancer.

But these statistics have not shocked people into action. The impact of air pollution on people continues to be severe. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), nine out of ten people worldwide breathe polluted air. Also, according to WHO reports, more than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed the WHO guideline level of 10µg/m3, with low- and middle-income countries suffering the most — countries such as Pakistan.

In Pakistan, air pollution’s harm is heightened by how it accentuates existing health issues. There is a direct correlation between numerous diseases and air pollution; ranging from respiratory diseases to cardiovascular damage, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, damage to reproductive organs, liver failure, spleen and blood and also nervous system damage. Infants and children are particularly vulnerable. The most serious example in Pakistan is increased vulnerability to tuberculosis (TB). There are an estimated 510,000 new TB cases emerging each year and approximately 15,000 developing drug resistant TB cases annually. Pakistan is ranked fifth among high-burden countries worldwide and it accounts for 61% of the TB burden in the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region.

Examples from two of the world’s best-known cities show this need not be the case. In the 1950s, thousands of Londoners died from ‘killer fogs’ — a toxic of mix from coal fires, and emissions from industry and vehicles. Today London is a much larger city, but one where the killer fogs exist only in televisions serials about Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth! As recently as 10 years ago, Beijing had levels of air pollution that affected everyone’s health and sometimes killed people. That is now a memory of a result of programmes to reduce the use of coal for heating and to cut vehicle emissions. Cleaning the air of London and Beijing had costs, but those costs are less than the effects continued high levels of air pollution have on health and the economy.

With programmes like the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami, and Clean Green Pakistan, the government is communicating loudly and clearly that there is an urgent need to take action to improve the environment. The gains can be higher and benefit more people if there is more sustained investment in technologies to reduce air pollution, and if there is a bigger push to clean up the air in all Pakistan’s cities, including mobilising citizens to be more aware.

We can make that choice either to continue to be wrapped in a blanket of life-threatening dirty air, or to take practical and simple steps to breathe better and enjoy the stars. That would also be an environment more conducive to happy and healthy frogs who stay out of hot water! 

Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2019.

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