Marking World Environment Day - 2019: Do we breathe safe air? | Sunday Observer

Marking World Environment Day - 2019: Do we breathe safe air?

Coal burning power plants and factories produce unhealthy air pollutants
Coal burning power plants and factories produce unhealthy air pollutants

While ‘Air Pollution’ took centre stage as the theme of the ‘World Environment Day’ commemorations last Wednesday, June 5, the current air pollution levels around the country is double that of the safety levels recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Sunday Observer learns.

Placed 18th in the world in an air pollution acceleration rate last year by climate change researchers, Sri Lanka’s level of ambient air pollution is on the rise, it was revealed at many platforms on World Environment Day. Currently, the main source of ambient air pollution in Sri Lanka is vehicular emissions, which in Colombo contributes to over 60 percent of total emissions.

The reasons are many, the main being the lack of a proper quality public transport system which has resulted in over 50 percent of the workforce using private vehicles to commute to work. There are 7.24 million vehicles plying Lankan roads, out of which 4.04 million are motorcycles with 1.14 million three wheelers. An estimated 600,000 new vehicles are annually being added to this force.

The current ambient air pollution levels in the country is measured at an annual mean/average of 22 micrograms per cubic meter (22 µg/m3) for fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less called PM2.5. However, the WHO recommended safe annual mean of PM2.5 is ten micrograms per cubic meter (10 μg/m3). This shows that the country’s ambient air levels are 2.2 times polluted than the recommended levels.

According to the WHO website, PM2.5 is the most damaging particulate matter. “While particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less, (≤ PM10) can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, (≤ PM2.5). PM2.5 can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.”

Diesel exhaust was classified as a carcinogen in humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2012, based on evidence of lung carcinogenicity. Sri Lanka’s vehicular traffic pollutes air quality by its use of low quality fuel and reduced speed. The average speed for vehicles in Colombo had decreased from 22 km/hour in 2012, to 17 km/hour in 2018. Vehicles in traffic jams produce more fine particles in the form of soot. In addition, low quality fuel with high sulfur levels also generates soot which adversely affects our health. Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Environmental Activist, Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), Hemantha Withanage said, “Health Authorities reveal that over 45 percent of the admissions of children to hospitals are due to air pollution in Sri Lanka. It has also been estimated that 7,792 people die annually from air pollution-related diseases and the rate is increasing each year. The top illness caused by air pollution is ischemic heart disease. In Sri Lanka indoor air pollution is mostly caused by congested houses, the use of chemicals indoors, kerosene lamps, mosquito coils and incense sticks, which release carcinogenic chemicals”.

According to Environmentalist, Sajeewa Chamikara, one condition of the 99 year Magampura Harbour lease agreement between China and Sri Lanka is the release of 15,000 acres of land to the Chinese government for the installation of industries. Now, they are planning to install factories in Hambantota and Moneragala. As China is ranked top in the list of the world’s polluted countries, it has initiated a project to reduce factories which cause massive air pollution by establishing them in other countries, thereby reducing its own pollution rates.

Sri Lanka has faced crucial situations in battling pollution. If every citizen becomes responsible and helps contribute to reduce pollution, the country will have less pollution. “Zero waste production is a wise step to begin with,” Environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella said at an awareness program on Beating Air Pollution. “The waste produced by a single person is considerably high. Reducing consumption of polythene, using public transportation, dumping garbage accurately, reforesting and educating the public on reduction of air pollution are immediate and vital solutions to establish an unpolluted environment which could provide us clean air to breathe,” Ranwella said. “Ninety two percent of the world’s population doesn’t have clean air to breathe. A record of eight million annual deaths shows that 4.3 million deaths happen from indoor and 3.7 million from outdoor air pollution. Air pollution is a slow killer.”

Burning of fossil fuels, fire wood and other biomass-based fuel to cook, generate heat and light are major household activities that cause air pollution. Coal burning power plants and factories also produce unhealthy air pollutants which damage the ozone layer. The travel and transportation sectors directly contribute to toxic gas emissions which are linked to 400,000 premature deaths. Twenty four percent of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide come from agricultural activities and deforestation. Burning of agricultural waste pollutes the air and the burning of livestock waste produces methane and ammonia which are harmful air pollutants. Landfills and open waste burning release toxic dioxins, furans and methane to the atmosphere. But air pollution is not only caused by humans, natural hazards such as volcanic eruptions, dust storms, forest fires also contribute to air pollution.

The world must urgently find the means to control and prevent air pollution. Raising public awareness on maintaining a clean environment and the harm caused by air pollution, choosing green modes of travel and transportation, minimising combusting agricultural and urban solid waste, promoting production of organic fertiliser, using energy efficient ovens and green energy, encouraging the use of eco friendly packages, implementing waste management methodologies, creating supply centres for plants and planting materials at institutional and village levels in order to expand forest cover, identifying and implementing conservation programs to protect forests, rehabilitation of degraded lands, implementing programs for soil conservation and sustainable land management, implementing programs to identify and promote area specific green jobs and promoting toxic free organic farming and sustainable home gardening - the list can go on. Even though projects in mitigating environmental hazards are launched, they are not being carried out practically in order to achieve healthy goals for the future of the world. The responsibility lies in the hands of the relevant parties and the public to create a world where every living being can breathe clean air.

According to a press release from the Centre for Environmental Justice, 153 million deaths have been linked to air pollution worldwide in this century. This could be prevented if governments speed up timetables for reducing fossil fuel (coal and gas) emissions to below 1.5 C temperature to reduce global warming.

“Public awareness is lagging on the danger of air pollution. People continue to pollute air at all levels and also die due to this lack of awareness. World Environment Day 2019 is another moment to call governments, industries, communities, and individuals to come together to explore renewable energy and green technologies, and improve air quality in cities and regions across the world” a Presidential Secretariat circular stated.