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Choking to Death on Dirty Air

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Photo courtesy of Sunday Observer

Today is the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

Аir pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally, with some estimated 6.5 million premature deaths attributed to indoor and outdoor air pollution. This figure is expected to more than double by 2050. Particularly in developing countries, air pollution disproportionately affects women, children and the elderly, especially in low income populations, as they are often exposed to high levels of air pollution and indoor air pollution from cooking and heating with wood fuel and kerosene, according to the UN.

Sri Lanka is ranked 58 out of 118 countries in terms of air quality. Bangladesh has the worst air quality in the world followed by Chad, Pakistan, Tajikistan and India.

Air quality in Sri Lanka is affected by vehicle emissions, organic waste burning, by products from the agricultural industry and petroleum refining. Many vehicles are old and do not pass current regulations on emission control. Air pollution is mainly concentrated in urban areas and more than 60% of urban air pollution is due to vehicular emissions. Other major sources of air pollution are industrial activity, mining, coal and diesel fired power plants, domestic activity, burning of agricultural residue and slash and burn farming.

Air pollution impacts the process of plant evolution by preventing photosynthesis through the dusty deposits on their leaves inhibiting purification of the air. It contributes to acid rain in the form of rain, frost, snow or fog released during the combustion of fossil fuels and transformed by contact with water and other chemicals in the atmosphere. Air pollution is a major contributor to global warming and climate change. The huge amount of carbon dioxide in the air is one of the main causes of greenhouse gases that trap the earth’s outgoing energy, retaining heat in the atmosphere.

Tiny, invisible particles of pollution penetrate deep into human lungs, bloodstream and bodies. These pollutants are responsible for one third of deaths from stroke, chronic respiratory disease and lung cancer, as well as one quarter of deaths from heart attack. Ground level ozone, produced from the interaction of many different pollutants in sunlight, is a cause of asthma and chronic respiratory illnesses. Short lived climate pollutants linked to health effects and warming of the planet and persist in the atmosphere for as little as a few days or up to a few decades.

Air pollution has negative impacts on the economy, work productivity, healthcare costs and tourism.

Convenor of Rainforest Protectors, Jayantha Wijesingha, spoke to Groundviews about the grave dangers posed by unchecked air pollution in Sri Lanka.

Why is air pollution so dangerous?

Air pollution is a global crisis. More people die from air pollution than pandemics, which are seen as great disasters but if you work it out, the number of people dying due to air pollution, water pollution and environmental disasters is far greater than any pandemic. Every day people are dying due to disasters caused by alterations we have done to the environment by burning fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems that clean up the air such as forests, mangrove forests and oceans. We keep on burning fossil fuels for transportation and for energy generation in terms of coal, diesel and other crude oil sources. We add pollution to the air by burning plastics and from our processing plants.

What environmental hazards are posed by air pollution?

Heavy metal pollutants cause acid rain that is absorbed by the oceans, resulting in ocean acidification and bleached corals. Species that have shells such as turtles get bleached and die. Oceans play a huge role in terms of cleaning our air, absorbing pollutants and releasing oxygen. Eighty percent of our mangroves have been destroyed and we have not kept the 100 metre coastal buffer imposed after the tsunami. Freshwater inland mangroves have also been destroyed. Mangroves absorb pollutants in the water, soil and the air. We have destroyed most of our forests. When the British left, we had 80 percent of forest cover; now it is 17 percent. Nature’s cleaning process of the air is not happening because there is not enough forest cover. In the urban areas, a lot of the tree cover has been taken away and replaced with concrete so there is no cleaning process that happens naturally therefore pollution levels are significantly higher.

What are the health issues caused by air pollution?

In Kandy and Colombo air pollution has gone up so much that school children are having respiratory diseases and lung diseases. Kandy has become of the most polluted cities in the country despite being surrounded by mountains because it is in an area where the air circulation does not happen properly. Mental stress levels are going up because of polluted air. In rural, greener areas where there is less pollution, the mind, heart and brain work better but in urban areas you are always stressed not only because you have a busy life but also because you see less green and there is heavy air pollution. Elevated stress levels result in other diseases in the human body.

What should be done to address the issue of air pollution?

Despite all the regulations that are in place, we have not addressed the key issues. For example, the green test is not required for government vehicles and as a result, many old, highly polluting trucks, lorries and police jeeps as well as CTB buses are allowed on the roads. There was a hotline set up and other programmes initiated to ensure that these vehicles were repaired but no one is adhering to this. The government makes laws but does not adhere to them. We have to stop burning coal and keep energy clean and green. Ash and polluted air from the Norochcholai coal power plant have reached as far as the Knuckles mountains and Anuradhapura. Burning fossil fuels for energy consumption must stop immediately. Emissions should be regulated so they do not pollute the air and urban greening must be reintroduced. Vehicles entering urban areas should be minimised and public transportation improved. Polluters should be made to pay for their emissions through emission taxes. Recently, we have been importing substandard fuel that is high in emissions. There should be some standardisation and inspection of the quality of the fuel.

During Covid-19 lockdowns and during the fuel shortage there was a great improvement in air quality. Has this continued?

Unfortunately it is back to business as usual. With the economic crisis, everything else is immaterial. There is no clean and green anymore.

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