Lahore is choking under a sea of smog but the government can’t see it.
Air quality levels across the city are rising and people are panicking. They’re filing petitions in the Lahore High Court and organizing protests but the government says everything is fine. Pakistan may have a very different way of looking at air quality than the rest of the world—it revised its air quality standards to say levels that the rest of the world considers dangerous are just moderate—but that doesn’t mean Pakistani lungs can survive this.
AirVisual.com and aqicn.org, two websites that measure air quality, have both declared that the air in Lahore is very unhealthy. But in a video posted on her Twitter account, Pakistan’s State Minister for Climate Change Zartaj Gul Wazir called this fake news.
She said this and other data like it is not authentic and said these companies were spreading sensationalism. She claimed that they measure air quality when there are the most cars on the road and that they were doing so because they “want their equipment to be installed”. She also said Lahore is not one of the most polluted cities in the world, New Delhi is.
According to Pakistan’s revised air quality standards, an index of 200-300 is ‘moderately polluted’, while the rest of the world considers this ‘very unhealthy’.
When you compare us to the region, we aren’t polluted, said Wazir during a November 1 appearance on SAMAA TV’s show Agenda 360. She added that in India produces “around 60 lakh bels” of rice in the area and burns it, which is the cause of pollution. Traditionally, rice fields are burned after harvest to dispose of the leftover straw and control disease and pest problems.
“So essentially, you’re saying that if we’re getting sick and dying five years earlier, it’s happening four times as much in India?” asked one of the hosts, Abdul Moiz Jaferii. He said air quality indexes are created by experts and they say they measured Lahore’s air quality at 10 different places, not the single spot she claimed, and then put forward an average. They say all the areas are hazardous, he added.
Scientists say that Pakistani scientists have increased the number that gets you sick, said Jaferii. For example, 50 to 100 is moderate, 100 to 150 is unhealthy for sensitive people and 150-200 is unhealthy but they have changed it to say that 100-200 is satisfactory, he said. “So you’re basically saying, because we’re saying this, it’s okay, don’t worry, no matter what the world is saying?”
Between 300 and 400 is very hazardous on other scales but here they’ve called it “poor”, he added. But Wazir laughed it off with an “anyhow” and said the data scale is different in Pakistan.
We get our data from the Met department, she explained. “Especially in Lahore. We have one [air quality monitoring centre] on Jail Road and today it measured the air quality as 185 and the advisory said stay hydrated and that the status is satisfactory,” she said. At Wagah the level was 339, which is poor, she said.
“Madam, stay hydrated means drink water, and that is related to the heat. It has nothing to do with environmental pollution. By drinking water, your breathing won’t get better,” interrupted Jaferii. But Wazir laughed again and continued with another “anyhow”.
“Countries make their own environmental standards according to their environment and I represent the Government of Pakistan so I will use those standards,” she said.
“You’re saying that what they [other experts] are saying is inaccurate but what you are saying is right,” said host Haider Waheed. “What your government is also saying is that we have lungs that cannot be affected by air that is getting the whole world sick. Air quality in the range of 50 to 100 is not a problem,” said Jaferii.
And that air quality index is rising. On Wednesday, an index of 621 was recorded in Lahore’s Shimla Hills. The overall AQI in Lahore was at 361, which is dangerous. A 467 index was recorded at FC College, 374 index at Liberty, 401 index in DHA and 264 index in Bedian.
At 9:18pm on Wednesday, the Punjab Assembly measured 731 on the AQI. At 10:26, Lahore’s AQI was at 551 overall.
What is an AQI?
An AQI or Air Quality Index is basically how polluted the air is. The index combines a number of things, including your PM2.5 rate. PM2.5 is how many fine particles are in the air, like those found in smoke or haze.
Each country has a different standard for what the PM2.5 should be, but the US has set its standard at 12μg/m3 as of 2012 and the EU at 20μg/m3 in 2015. In Pakistan, PM2.5 from 0 to 35 is ‘good.
On Wednesday night, Lahore’s PM2.5 was at 577μg/m3.
Pakistan doesn’t publicise its AQI levels. In fact, only one website seems to publish these levels, the same one Wazir quoted: Punjab’s Environment Protection Department. But it just has two levels, one for Lahore and one for Wagah and neither give much detail.
Publicising AQI levels is one of the things a group of young students has approached the Lahore High Court about. Three young students have taken the Environmental Protection Agency of Punjab, Punjab Environmental Protection Council, Punjab Safe Cities Authority and Environment Protection Department to court.
They want the court to declare Punjab’s smog policy and action plan illegal and make the government make a new one. It also wants the real-time air quality information to be made public on the EPA’s website.
What you can do to stay protected
The rise in smog often coincides with a rise in numerous health concerns, including asthma, lung damage, bronchial infections and heart problems and shortened life expectancy. Here are some tips to keep yourself and your family protected: