The Silent Killer

April 26, 2018 Environment , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , OTHER , Pakistan

AFP photo



Zeeshan A. Shah



All enemies are not created equally  – Anonymous



Over the last decade, the state of air quality has escalated in Pakistan as the silent killer – added with high population growth, urbanization and industrialization, intense motorization and energy consumption, is now one of the biggest challenges in the country and across the region, the next growth engine for the world with China, India and Russia becoming one of the highest energy consumers in recent history.


As a result, there has been a substantial rise in all types of emission sources of various air pollutants as the battle against air pollution becomes critical. Air pollution has become a serious threat to the environment, quality of life and the health of the population. In South Asia in particular, emission control strategies and technologies are not always being adopted. According to the World Health Organization report of 2007, over 865,000 premature deaths every year were caused by Air pollution. Trend analysis today would safely indicate the number of double that, to say the least.


Over the last two decades, the number of motor vehicles on the streets has risen at the rate of 14% per annum, thereby increasing the health hazards for people across every city due to rising poisonous emissions posing one the biggest challenges rightfully known as “The Silent Killer“. Many government departments and international organizations have identified degradation of ambient quality in Pakistan as the major concern for the environment. The mass transit system is in doldrums and plays a major role in the deterioration of urban air quality. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has also indicated a strong connection between rising air pollution and high risk of respiratory diseases but the governmental commitment is lacking on the issue.


Key findings on the issue were highlighted by the government in the PCAP – Pakistan Clean Air Program report where 4 key factors were identified as major killers – including natural dust, burning of solid waste, industrial emissions and smoke from vehicles. A lot of short and long term strategies and solutions were proposed for action at all levels of government. A small number of monitoring stations were created for this purpose, however ambient air quality standards have not yet been established.


What are the ingredients that formulate the word “Pollution”? Here, few pollutants have been identified as critically risky for health including Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Ozone (O3), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), lead (pb) and PM-particulate matter. Out of all these, only O3 was found to be meeting the quantity guidelines as per WHO quality standards in place which the rest were found in higher quantities and not meeting the standards at all with PM and NO2 being the major risk factors found in the air we breathe.


According to the Millennium Development Goals – MDGs report of 2005, there were 5 million motor vehicles on the streets. Imagine what the numbers would be as of today. With the sixth largest population globally, Pakistan is under pressure to ensure safety for its citizens from unidentified silent killers like air pollution with major cities today affected by motor smoke fumes and other poison as emissions from trucks, buses, taxis and rickshaws which are on the roads in violation of every possible environmental regulation created in Pakistan especially the fact that they are outdated vehicles- not certified or safe enough to be on the roads, not following environmental protection laws that govern transportation statues and not FFD- fit for driving certified.


Looking at the numbers at a bare minimum average in Pakistan, findings calculated show the estimated health impacts due to urban air pollution (PM) both in terms of annual cases and DALY-disability adjusted life years in Pakistan and the results shown by the World Bank in 2006 were shocking. An estimated 21,000 deaths were attributed to Premature Mortality in adults, over 81,000 hospital admissions, 4,924,148 or nearly 5 million cases of lower respiratory illness in children, and over 700 million cases of respiratory diseases in the population. This is probably the highest health impact being borne by any country in South Asia, not impacted by commercial warfare.


The way forward strategy for Pakistan is not so simple when it comes to saving the environment and saving the health of the nation. One such effective measure that can be taken today is to ensure that we plant maximum trees and cut down on deforestation- a global phenomenon which has also damaged the eco system here in Pakistan.


The lack of care shown by citizens and governments alike is appalling. In the last few decades we as humans have added billions of tons of carbon dioxide in the air by cutting down trees with an average of over 30,000 trees being cut annually leading to over 100 million people being directly affected by pollution which may eventually go below the poverty line in future years.


It has also been found that people who live in high polluted areas of mega cities where air pollution levels are highest, have a 20% higher risk of getting lung cancer in their living years. Over 3 million children die every year due to such environmental factors including the “silent killer” or polluted air.


Moreover, water pollution combined with air pollution doubles the risk of disease by crippling the remaining percentage of the population as contaminated waste and industrial pollution and toxic poison is being systematically dumbed in the rivers and oceans and affecting our water supply. So we are slowly but surely dying – between the air pollution and water hazards – the devil on one side and the deep blue sea on the other.


Increased air pollution is also a major global threat as the combined world polluted smoke from the greenhouse effect and the solid waste residues burning the air are leading to the depletion of the Ozone layer – a natural O3 gas that naturally exists around the earth’s atmosphere 10 kms above the earth’s surface. It helps protect us from the radiation of the sun, prevents all skin cancers and eye diseases that could impact billions in a matter of days – should the ozone layer get depleted at a rapid rate.


Nuclear waste and weapons manufacturing and usage in global wars has further impacted the air we breathe leaving us potentially at risk of dying much earlier than usual. In Pakistan, the average age of the population has decreased from 65 years in the 1980s to around 55 years in recent times- one of the most baffling revelations that have been ignored by our policy makers and the state of Pakistan.


We are setting our own homes on fire by damaging the air around us and our children as the highest impact of air pollution will be borne by our own children who are still in their growth years. We need a health population and by ignoring health laws in this country and adding to environmental pollution, we are leading our selves into the death trap of the silent killer.


What is more shocking today is that we as individuals, think tanks, governments and states around the world are more fully aware today than we were before but are not abiding by citizen-friendly laws and not creating protective laws to curb the damage. Instead, the law of action on this front is alarming and shocking for the people of over 196 countries around the world- a population of over 7.5 billion with the right to live, walk and breathe fresh air. Shockingly, some major policy making nations are talking of life on mars while destroying life on earth with policies that disregard human life and human health over money, power and war of the worlds.


The available information on air quality in Pakistan is little and sporadic but it clearly reflects the severity of the problem. Air quality is decreasing at enormous speed and has been recognized by the government as a serious problem as it will eventually increase the health costs of the country and the lifestyles of over 180 million people of Pakistan. The principle sources are poisonous vehicle emissions and industrial pollution which top the list of health pollution in the country while the country itself remains in limbo on making a comprehensive policy manual to increase air quality management capacity. So far, no legislation and standards have been formulated by the health ministry both on federal and provincial levels with the state of health care one of the poorest in the world today.


The current state of affairs calls for urgent action to arrest the situation with air pollution being marked as the silent killer. We need to ensure limits on key pollutants, monitor current standards in place, redefine standards wherever necessary and also come up with an “emission control strategy” to be jointly conceived by the Health Ministry and Ministry of Environment. At present, people governing the country are ample proof of bad governance working against the benefit of the nation and its people and these dictators must pay the prize of the damage they have thrust upon the nation in the form of bad governance and bad policy making against the interest of Pakistan.


The silent killer destroys all- with no respect for policy, race, creed, money or nationality. We have already destroyed our oceans with pollution and now are hell bent on destroying the very air which keeps us alive. It is time we unite on this issue of “air pollution “and take decisive action for our own eventual survival and that of our coming generations.





Zeeshan A. Shah

The writer is a Director at CNNA Pakistan – a leading advocacy institute and is an expert on International Relations and Education Policy.

With over 150 publications in major local and global social media & newspapers, he has been instrumental in producing over 5000 radio broadcasts aired globally.

A thought leader, environmental journalist, media broadcaster and a change maker with an acute focus on development affairs & education for Pakistan.

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