Importance of civic environmental knowledge

Claiming a minor impact of air pollution on people’s health based on these numbers is not correct

Muhammad Zaheer December 20, 2021
The writer is an assistant professor of Chemistry at LUMS


While I write these lines, a dense greyish layer covers the atmosphere outside my window, limiting the visibility to just a few feet. I hear my two kids — under five — periodically coughing while asleep from the other room. Our physician blames Lahore’s bad air for their respiratory condition. The outside scenery, a burning smell in the air, and coughing kids remind me of the LUMS Environmental Action Forum (LEAF) panel discussion a few days back. While answering a question, Punjab’s environmental minister reiterated that Lahore’s current atmospheric conditions are not smog.

Rather, a private company overestimates air pollution with their faulty low-cost monitors and misguides the public to sell their air purifiers. He shared the figures from Punjab’s health department to support his claim. The number of hospitals visits due to respiratory symptoms was around 97,000 during the first week of March this year which declined to just a few thousand in late November. While the low-cost sensors overestimate particulate air pollution under high humidity (>75%) conditions and are not the reference instruments for regulatory air monitoring, they at least provide guidelines values for the citizens to plan their outdoor activities during high pollution hours.

The performance of low-cost monitors can be enhanced by calibrating them against standard reference instruments — at least three currently available with the EPD. The private sector (IQAir) and the EPD cooperation can potentially enhance the current monitoring capacity ten times. Reliable emission data is the bottleneck for all policy interventions towards mitigating air pollution. Regarding patients with respiratory symptoms, a quick look at the figures shows that the fourth wave of Covid-19 was at a surge in March, and the number of daily cases touched 4,000 by the end of March. This number significantly dropped to less than 500 daily cases in November. Therefore, claiming a minor impact of air pollution on people’s health based on these numbers is not correct. The minister emphasised adding environment to the curriculum, which is an excellent suggestion.

The terms such as water, carbon and ecological footprints, air quality indices, and particulate matter are essential in understanding environmental issues and their root causes. Sound environmental knowledge in early school education will create awareness and prepare a more environmentally sensitive generation. Environmental problems, nevertheless, are complex and would need long-term planning. To what level we understand environmental issues is exemplified by a recent advertisement by Pakistan Science Foundation. The foundation called for research proposals from public and private institutes of higher education (HEIs) to address smog issues in Pakistan through indigenous research and innovation.

The guideline document for this competitive research programme mentions “photochemical smog”, which is not the kind of smog we observe in Lahore or anywhere in Pakistan. Photochemical smog — also known as California smog — is a brown haze mainly observed in metropolitan cities during summers. It is created by the chemical reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) with nitrogen oxides (NOx) and contains ozone as one of the principal components. The Lahore smog, on the other hand, consists of particles with diameters 10 (PM10) and 2.5 (PM2.5) micron along with NOx and is similar to the famous London smog in the early 50s. The other viable suggestions to mitigate smog include lowering the fuel’s sulfur content, which would otherwise choke the catalytic converters — a vehicular device that breaks down the particulate and gaseous pollutants to environmentally benign forms. A policy could be formulated to enforce the installation of catalytic converters in all kinds of vehicles. According to the World Bank, outdoor air pollution in Pakistan accounts for 22,000 premature adult deaths annually. We need to take emergency measures to make the air breathable for us and generations to come. Bringing environment as an essential component of our curriculum could be one of such measures with a positive impact in the long run.


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