Breathing in poison – Lahore’s growing air pollution problem
Toxic smog in Pakistan’s second largest city risks the health of its residents, but the government is failing to address the issue
Sabrina Toppa in Lahore
Thursday 8 December 2016 08.00 GMT
Nadia Faisal, a cleaning woman in Lahore, remembers the sudden onset of toxic smog that hit Pakistan’s second-largest city last month. When she returned home, she found her children playing in a narrow alley, their eyes red and watering. “My kids were asking me ‘What’s happening?’.”
The hazardous pollutants across Lahore’s skyline caused residents respiratory difficulties, eye irritation, and cardiac complications, among other ailments.
Pakistan’s second-largest city, home to more than 10 million people, is facing elevated levels of air pollution, thanks to rapid industrialisation, growing vehicular emissions and tree slashing, and increased crop burning and coal plant emissions from neighbouring India.
“I have never experienced this before. This was scary,” says 20-year-old college student Salma Khalid. “I had breathing problems, so I skipped two classes today. I’m staying indoors.”
Last year, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particulate matter in the air, among the highest death tolls in the world from air pollution, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Pakistan’s median exposure levels to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) – among the most harmful pollutants in the air – is 68 in urban areas, compared to just 12 in UK cities, according to the WHO (pdf). The WHO sets a standard safe PM 2.5 level at 25 µg/m3. This month, numbers rose above 100 in Lahore, according to the city’s environment protection agency (EPA) data.
As South Asia’s most urbanised country, Pakistan contends with increasing challenges from the increase in motor vehicles in cities. In the last decade, more than 11m cars appeared on the roads in Pakistan’s most populous province, representing a growth of almost 30%, according to a report from the Punjab environmental protection department (EPD). Although the environmental body has recommended the government mandate low-sulphur diesel and increase higher public transport use, these results have been slow to materialise.