As I write these lines, a thick greyish layer obscures the view outside my window. 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, the burning smell in the air and the coughing children remind me of the LUMS Environmental Action Forum panel discussion a few weeks back. While answering a question, Punjab’s environmental minister reiterated that Lahore’s current atmospheric conditions are not smog.
Instead, a private company exaggerates the amount of air pollution using their low-cost monitors. This misguides the public into buying their air purifiers. He shared the figures from Punjab’s health department to support his claim. The number of hospital visits due to respiratory symptoms dropped to a few hundred in November, from around 97,000 in the first week. Although the sensors aren’t the best for monitoring regulatory air pollution, they can provide guidelines for citizens who want to plan outdoor activities during high levels of pollution.
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 EPD and private sector cooperation can potentially increase the monitoring capacity ten-fold. Reliable emission data is the key to all policy interventions to reduce pollution. A quick glance at the figures reveals that patients suffering from respiratory symptoms experienced a surge in March. The number of daily cases reached 4,000 by March’s end. This number fell to 500 cases per day in November, a significant drop from March’s fourth wave of Covid-19. Therefore, claiming a minor impact of air pollution on people’s health based on these numbers is not correct. The minister suggested that the curriculum should be made more environment-friendly, which is a great suggestion.
Understanding environmental issues and root causes requires knowledge of terms like water, carbon, ecological footprints, air quality indexes, particulate matter, and carbon. A solid environmental education in school will raise awareness and prepare students to be more environmentally conscious. But environmental problems are complex and require planning over the long-term. A recent advertisement from Pakistan Science Foundation illustrates how much we understand environmental problems. The foundation invited research proposals from both public and private institutions of higher education (HEIs), to address smog problems in Pakistan by using 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 formed by the chemical reaction between volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and contains ozone. Lahore smog is composed of particles with diameters of 10 (PM10) or 2.5 (PM2.5), along with NOx. It is similar to the famous London fog in the 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. It is possible to create a policy to require all vehicles to have catalytic converters. According to the World Bank in Pakistan, outdoor air pollution is responsible for 22,000 premature deaths each year. We must take immediate measures to ensure that the air is clean for future generations. One of these measures could be to make environment an integral part of our curriculum. This could have a long-lasting positive impact.