Smog: Causes, Effects and the Way Forward

December 17, 2017

Smog is the result of the chemical reaction of sunlight, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere, which include ozone.

 

Smog, by now fairly familiar to most of the citizens residing in Punjab, is a term used to describe a mix of smoke and fog. Smog caused in Lahore as well as across parts of Central and Southern Punjab, earlier this year, is largely being attributed to the air pollutants coming from the Indian State of Punjab, where a number of coal industries are centered. The Smog Policy 2017 (the 2017 Policy) of the Environment Protection Department, Government of Punjab links the occurrence of smog to the burning of rice stubbles; a quantity of 32 million tons burnt alone in the Indian State of Punjab in 2016.

 

But this, some would argue, is a usual knee-jerk reaction by blaming the causes on external factors, which are obviously difficult to deal with, thus absolving ourselves from our responsibility to mitigate. In this process, we have conveniently ignored the local contributory factors. Along with crop wastes, the burning of municipal waste is also a contributor. Burning of rice stubbles in Punjab (Pakistan) is without any check, despite the stated governmental policy of banning it. Moreover, the coal-fired power plants set up in Punjab are also contributing to this problem.

 

Vehicular emissions are also a key player in causing air pollution. Current fuels being used in Pakistan are high in Sulphur content, which contributes significantly to harmful emissions. The maximum allowable content of Sulphur for all fuels used in Pakistan was originally planned to be reduced from 10,000 to 500 parts per million (ppm) by 2008, but this deadline has been continuously extended to December 2017. Sulphur emissions remain high in diesel and petroleum fueled vehicles alike. Small to medium-scale industries, including brick kilns and steel re-rolling mills (an astonishingly large number are situated in Lahore) significantly contribute to air pollution as a result of the usage of cheaper waste fuels such as old tyres, paper, wood, and textile waste.

 

Some of the serious effects of smog are severe respiratory diseases (including damage to lung tissue, chest discomfort, restricted lung development and increased asthma-related symptoms), burning eyes, birth defects, as well as low production levels of Vitamin D on account of heavy smog blocking ultraviolet rays from reaching the surface of the earth and resultantly developing rickets. Dense layers of smog also severely impact visibility, oft reducing it to below 100 meters. In a stretch of just one week, major road accidents occurred across Punjab, resulting in loss of lives and property.

 

 

On November 5th and 6th, 2 017, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, reported a total of 25 injuries and 10 deaths in smog related accidents. 

It is, therefore, extremely important to take a holistic stock of this smog crisis, which is most likely going to be a recurring issue for the foreseeable future.

 

The 2017 Policy does offer some solutions including a ban on burning rice stubbles across Punjab, enforcing lowered Sulphur content in petroleum products, controlling vehicular emissions by encouraging lesser usage of motor vehicles, introducing ‘greener’ mechanisms of industrial manufacturing, reliance upon renewable energy and mass tree plantation drive. The challenge, however, would as always be the translation of the 2017 Policy into reality. Lack of awareness of the challenges that our country faces due to climate change (smog being a glimpse of it), general governmental antipathy towards environments and week enforcement measures remain the biggest hurdles in implementing the 2017 Policy.

 

To curb smog-related issues, a comprehensive plan of action has to be drawn up and immediately executed. Data collection and monitoring of air quality needs to be consistent, reliable and certain. Only when the problem and its causes are correctly identified, can the practical and calculated steps be drawn up. However, all of this is to be done at the governmental level, which takes time. Therefore, the problem of smog requires immediate adaptation and mitigation measures at the individual as well as societal levels.

 

Some of the adaptation and mitigation measures which can and should be taken could be using precautions such as wearing protective masks, avoiding strenuous outdoor activities (especially in high traffic or industrial areas, and during midday when ground ozone levels are at their highest), avoiding burning leaves and trash, avoiding leaving the car engine running for a long time and switching it off when car is stationary, and avoiding the use of diesel-run vehicles and electricity generators, as much as possible. More pro-active measures could include keeping vehicles in good condition so they give improved mileage, use less fuel and emit less smoke (e.g. by getting regular tune-up checks, periodically changing oil, keeping tyres inflated at proper levels, etc.), carpooling or using public transport where possible, and educating farmers to refrain from stubble burning.

 

Most importantly, it is the mass awareness that can help in dealing with this challenge at the individual as well as governmental level.

 

 

 

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