Air pollution in Sri Lanka’s cities:
A case for providing safety masks for Traffic Police
Out - door air pollution in Sri Lanka has been researched and
discussed over a long period of time. Results of scientific studies have
shown ample evidence that major cities of Sri Lanka are not meeting the
standards expected for air pollution, and that our cities do have higher
levels of many pollutants such as particulate matter, ground-level
ozone, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons and lead. Importation of lead-free gasoline
brought down the level of lead in air but in terms of other pollutants,
the country’s cities are still polluted.
The statistics of local motor traffic reveal that the number of motor
vehicles being registered and plying on roads are ever increasing. All
these boil down to the fact that air pollution is not under control and
we need to do something to safeguard the most vulnerable parties exposed
to the hazards related to out-door air pollution.
The objectives of this article are to highlight the health
implications of out-door air pollution in Sri Lanka’s cities and to
convince and urge the relevant authorities to take action to safeguard
the major stakeholders.
Air Pollutants and Health Implications
i. Carbon Monoxide
Carbon monoxide is generated in vehicle exhaust and as a result of
wood burning. Constant exposure to carbon monoxide could result in
headaches, reduced mental alertness, heart diseases, and impaired foetal
development in women.
A note should be made on the point that, though the government has
made it compulsory for an evaluation of the status of vehicular
emissions annually, before the revenue licences are issued for vehicles,
it is doubtful whether a proper examination of vehicles happens. Due to
malpractices and corruption, false reports are often issued on vehicular
ii. Sulphur dioxide
Sulphur dioxide is released to the city environment from power
plants, and petroleum refineries. Other means of releasing sulphur
dioxide to the environment are during making sulphuric acid and smelting
of ores containing sulphur. Most common health implications of sulphur
dioxide are eye irritation, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of
breath and lung damage.
iii. Nitrogen oxides
Nitrogen oxides are generated from motor vehicles, electric utilities
and other sources that burn fuel. This means, bakeries, eating houses,
restaurants and urban households that burn fire wood produce nitrogen
oxides. Further, the power generators used by shops and industries give
out a considerable proportion of nitrogen oxides.
Humans exposed to nitrogen oxides are susceptible to respiratory
infections, irritation of the lungs and other respiratory symptoms such
as cough, chest pain, and difficulty in breathing.
iv. Ground level ozone
A major factor contributing ground level ozone in Sri Lanka’s cities
is motor vehicles. Ground ozone can have health implications such as
eyes, throat irritations, asthma and other respiratory tract diseases.
v. Particulate matter
Particulate matter are particles which are extremely small, so that
they are measured in microns. Particles that are smaller than 10 microns
are referred to as PM10 and particulate matter that are smaller than 2.5
microns are referred to as PM2.5.
These are particles of mixed origin, meaning, they can come from
different sources. Common particulate matter present in our cities are
earth particles (soil, clay dust, silt, fertilizer, asphalt particles),
salt crystals, combustion particles, seeds, soot, spores and pollen.
This extensive list itself should convince the readers that a city
full of traffic, people and households could generate millions and
millions of harmful particulate matter. Generally most common sources of
particulate matter are diesel engines, power plants, industries,
wind-blown dust and wood stoves.
Taking into consideration the continuous development projects seen in
the capital and other cities, we can also understand that land
clearance, road drilling, paving and mobilization of heavy vehicles etc.
also could generate a significant amount of particulate matter in the
city environments. The smallness of particulate matter would help them
to reach our respiratory tract easily. Common health implications of
particulate matter are eye irritations, asthma, lung infections, heavy
metal poisoning and heart diseases.
vi. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a group of chemicals formed
during burning of wood, fuel and garbage. Inefficient burning of wood,
fuel or garbage results in more PAHs. Cooking methods such as barbecuing
also gives rise to PAHs.
Therefore PAHs are common pollutants in urban environments. Unlike
other air pollutants, PAHs are reported to have more long term health
effects such as cataracts, kidney and liver damages and skin
Lead is a heavy metal released into city environments through metal
refineries, cottage industries which break open used lead batteries and
burn them to obtain lead, battery manufacturers and iron and steel
producers. A lot of cottage industries operate without valid permits and
necessary precautions. Exposure to lead would result in anaemia, high
blood pressure, cancer causing cells and kidney damages.
A case for safeguarding the traffic police - The above discussion
reveals that any human being exposed to a multitude of air pollutants in
the city environments could face serious health implications.
One would agree that the traffic police and any other police
personnel engaged in out-door duty for many hours would be highly
exposed to such air pollutants.
The recently declared open Southern Expressway itself is reported to
employ more than four hundred traffic police personnel.
The other cities including the capital could be employing thousands
of traffic police. The writer would like to highlight to the Police
Department the utmost necessity to provide safety masks to the traffic
police and safeguard them from health implications.
As the Police Department is a non profit organization, profit making
organizations could use this opportunity to provide them safety masks as
part of their CSR activities.
The writer is the Consultant Food Technologist, Lecturer on