Photo by Aysha Raja
Photo by Aysha Raja

The Lahore High Court (LHC) issued notices to the Punjab government, the Punjab Environment Protection Council (PEPC) and other departments on Tuesday on a writ petition by school and college students that challenged the Air Quality Index (AQI) measurement system adopted by the PEPC and applied by the Environment Protection Authority.

According to the petition, the AQI measurement system is not only at odds with the classification employed by the United States Environment Protection Agency (US-EPA) but also the Punjab Environmental Quality Standards (PEQS) for ambient air.

It under reports the severity of air pollution and therefore exposes the general public to unacceptable levels of dangerous air quality. For example, the US AQI reading of 194 recorded by the EPA, Punjab, by its monitor on Jail Road and placed on its website is classified as “satisfactory” by the EPA, Punjab, but has actually been declared “unhealthy” according to the US-EPA.

Petitioners are all school and college going students. Mishael Hyat, a professional swimmer, said her training regime had to be curtailed because of the noxious air. Leila Alam, another petitioner, complained she did not know when to wear a mask and when it was all right to go outside.

In March 2016, the PEPC approved the PEQS for ambient air in its first meeting held. In its second meeting held in October 2017 the PEPC approved the Smog Policy and Action Plan (Policy and Action Plan for Control, Mitigation, Advisory andProtective Measures in Extreme Weather Conditions of Dense Smog in the Punjab).

In November 2017, the court directed that that the Environment Protection Department (EPD) upload “daily readings of the air quality monitoring” on its website and that efforts be made to put up real time data at the earliest. The data was highlighted to be station wise – referring to the five monitoring stations the EPA, Punjab had admitted were operating at that time in Lahore.

However the EPD only uploads AQI readings of only a few of its monitoring stations, and this information is not real time, let alone regularly uploaded on a daily basis.

The indices approved by the PEPC, and which form the basis of the Smog Policy & Action Plan under-report the severity and status of AQI readings. This under-reporting puts children, senior citizens and pregnant women at special risk. The Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) has begun broadcast air quality information on the LCD screens installed in Lahore.

The PSCA has employed AQI and the indices prescribed by the Smog Policy & Action Plan and not the PEQS for ambient air as the means to broadcast air quality information. As a result, the general public is being given incorrect information about the severity of air pollution, which is a violation of their fundamental right to a clean and healthy environment.

Dr Zulfiqar Mir gave information regarding the health problems. “There is no level of pm 2.5 which is considered ‘safe’, however, it should always be less than 10 micrograms. Ours in smog season has gone up to 800 even.” He said that for every 10 micrograms increase, the cardiopulmonary risk (heart attacks, high blood pressure, etc.) and stroke, increases by 16 percent. high levels of PM 2.5 is increasing the risk of an average person more than a hundred times.

“Even a baby developing in a womb is vulnerable to smog through its mother,” said Dr Mir. “There are issues of low birth weight, premature births, autism, etc. On the other hand, if we lessen smog levels then we can add up to five years of life.”

Air pollution, in general, also impacts every organ of the body, and can result in brain deformity and stunting. According to WHO, nearly 95 percent of all children in low and middle income countries were exposed to unsafe levels of air pollution.

A report by the Children’s Hospital Lahore has revealed that there has been a three-fold increase in admissions of patients with chest or cardiovascular complaints in the past decade.

Recently, air pollution levels in Lahore were reported as some of the worst in the world and Amnesty International issued a statement that the hazardous air quality in Pakistan actually violates human rights.


Originally published in Dawn, November 6th, 2019

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