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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 emissions.

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 irritations.

vii. Lead

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 Environmental Pollution.

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