Smog “Silent Poison” and how we’re paying the price

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Smog and air pollution have been linked to rising fatalities and the onset of diseases, leading to premature death.

Not only has the city’s air quality touched hazardous levels with zero visibility to go along, there also seems to be an acrid smell of burnt garbage in the air. The all-too-familiar phenomenon has now become the ‘fifth climate’ of Lahore.

Currently, with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 285, the state of Lahore’s air has moved from ‘hazardous’ to ‘very unhealthy’, where it remains the most polluted urban centre in Pakistan in terms of air quality.

But this isn’t the first year of Lahore’s suffering. For the past several years, the onset of the cooler months of October and November has been bringing with it choking smog to the city that heralds in respiratory illnesses, eye diseases, and particulate matter — tiny solid particles that we breathe and that poison our bodies. And while the long-term health impact of all this outdoor air pollution remains to be fully seen, the World Health Organisation says that the impact is likely to include increased risk of stroke, lung cancer, as well as heart disease.

A public health concern

Smog and other forms of air pollution have been directly and indirectly linked with rising fatalities and the onset of diseases such as asthma, respiratory tract infections, eye infections, allergies, and interlinked cardiac and pulmonary pathologies leading to premature death. Already, higher levels of blood pressure have been reported in Lahore’s schoolchildren.

Nine out of 10 people on earth  the WHO says. As a result, seven million lose their lives every year. The international body also reports that the health effects of breathing polluted air are “equivalent to that of smoking tobacco.”

What makes air pollution a particularly difficult public health challenge is the fact that you cannot always escape it. No matter what locality you live in, be it the lush green suburbs emerging on the outskirts of our cities, or a densely populated city centre — air pollution carries over and spills across.

An active person breathes in between 10,000 to 20,000 litres of air every day, which comes down to between seven and 14 litres per minute. This intake varies with the level of physical activity and age. During inhalation, pollutants that are suspended in the air are also drawn into the lungs; from where they may enter the bloodstream, taking up permanent residence in critical organs making up the cardiovascular system.

The impact of these pollutants ranges from mild irritation to immediate (acute) and long-term (chronic) disease to premature death, based on a variety of factors including nature of pollutants, exposure duration, and the state of existing health.

As WHO Director of Public Health Dr Maria Neira aptly puts it: “The true cost of climate change is felt in our hospitals and in our lungs.”

We need to act now before we are choked out.

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