Pakistan’s smog: Filtering the myths from the facts

December 8, 2018

Photo: AFP

This is the fourth year of visible smog in Punjab and just like the smoke and dust, there are rumors and half-baked theories about it that are filling the air. 

Perhaps the only point everyone agrees on is this: smog is now part of our seasonal calendar. The other points are worth separating into fact and fiction.

Myth 1: It’s just fog

Many people think that the thick cloud reducing visibility on the roads during winter is fog. Fog, simply put, is a visible aerosol of minute water droplets suspended in the air near the Earth’s surface. Fog does indeed reduce visibility to less than 1 km, but other than that it is perfectly harmless.

Reality: It’s actually smog not fog

Smog is air pollution mixed with winter fog to make a noxious cloud that not only impairs visibility but has serious health effects. Smog is a severe form of air pollution and is distinct because of its smoky stench and slightly yellow color. Due to atmospheric inversion the air pollution is trapped near the ground, forming a real life snow globe effect that traps us in a cloud of toxic smoke.

Myth 2: Smog poses minor health concerns

Winter time means runny noses, congested chests, and the soundtrack of sniffles and hacking coughs. Smog is seen as a minor inconvenience to the eyes but overall it is considered harmless if a few small precautions are taken. Get a flu shot, and a face-mask, and you’re good for the season.

Fact: Air pollution is the 4th leading cause of death globally since 1990

Pakistan loses an estimated 135,000 people every year to air pollution. Smog intensifies this pollution close to the surface, increasing the risk of respiratory diseases, stroke, and cardiovascular episodes. The number of people coming in emergency wards has risen in smog season because our healthcare system can’t cope.

Myth 3: The polluted air is coming from India

Stubble burning in Indian Punjab, and the firecracker celebrations on Diwali are the main culprits of smog and air pollution year round. It is no coincidence that things get worse once Diwali passes and winds blow the pollution across the border. This reasoning is heavily promoted by the governments of both countries. While we blame India, they blame us. So who actually started the dumpster fire?

Fact: We’re both to blame

Though there is no denying that air pollution is a transboundary issue, it is not solely the fault of our neighboring countries. Punjab’s brick kilns burn fuel that is basically trash, and stubble burning takes place on this side of the border too. The fuel used in our cars is crude and our energy crisis means we burn more diesel to keep our generators going than our neighbours. We’re contributing to the regional air pollution; we can’t absolve ourselves of the blame.

Myth 4: Smog is Punjab’s problem

Smog and air pollution are synonymous with Punjab, particularly Lahore. Since it’s a regional problem the rest of the country doesn’t have to worry about it much.

Fact: Smog is Pakistan’s environmental crisis

Smog is visible air pollution but the quality of air all over Pakistan has deteriorated in the past decade. Smog is not a stationary phenomenon either that it will remain limited to a certain area. Strong winds can carry smog a great distance. Earlier this month smog was reported in Karachi.

Myth 5: Air purifiers and face masks are enough to counter air pollution

Buying an air purifier and face masks designed specifically for air pollution can filter out the pollutants and maintain a safe environment in your home. The demand for air purifiers has increased in the past two years and the market is now flooded with them. Men and women and children on motorcycles might forgo their helmets but the lower halves of their faces are covered by cloth masks. We’re perfectly safe.

A poster as part of the campaign to pressure the authorities to tackle smog. Source: Aik Awam PK

Fact: All pollutants can’t be filtered

Air purifiers and face masks can filter the basic toxins in the air but not the small particulate matter (PM) 2.5 that makes smog so dangerous. Research has found that some air purifiers produce ozone in large amounts to counter the odor of smoke. Using ozone air purifiers can further damage lungs and worsen asthma. Face masks don’t filter out the dangerous PM 2.5 and in the case of children are so big for their faces they don’t provide any protection at all. Cloth masks do little to help.

Myth 6: An increase in tree cover will solve the problem

Trees absorb carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gases, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, from the air and release oxygen. An increase in tree cover will also reduce greenhouse gases. Is there anything trees can’t solve?

Fact: Trees won’t solve smog

Though great at filtering many harmful gases, trees are inadequate at filtering PM 2.5 the most dangerous element of smog. In fact, a recent study found that the wrong kinds of trees could increase the level of ozone in polluted areas to dangerous levels, especially if planted near busy roads.

Smog is a complex problem with no one solution. It will take years to remedy the damage done to our environment but identifying the causes is a good start because it unifies pressure groups and those in positions of influence to campaign for the right changes that make the most far reaching and lasting difference.

 
 

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