LAHORE: Thousands of citizens of Lahore, one of the world’s most polluted cities, have been complaining of breathing difficulties and irritable eyes as a blanket of thick smog was forecast to persist for several days.
Readings of dangerous ‘fine particulate matter’ were more than four times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended level, exceeding 104 micogrammes per cubic metre in the worst-hit parts of the city of around 10 million.
A recent New York Times report said that an old practice of burning straw leftover from rice harvests by Indian farmers could be the biggest reason why the air quality in Pakistan’s Punjab particularly Lahore refuses to clear.
An India environmental court, the National Green Tribunal, last year had told its government to stop farmers from burning the straw leftover; but NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) satellite images in recent weeks have shown virtually no abatement.
Indian farmers are continuing to burn most of the leftover straw — an estimated 32 million tonnes — to make room to plant their winter wheat crop, eventually fuelling thick smog in the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, said the report.
Punjab complains of breathing issues, irritable eyes
Visibility in Lahore plunged to less than 20 metres and citizens wore face masks to help with breathing.
Nasimur Rehman, a senior official in the Environment Protection Agency blamed the pollution on less-than-average rainfall over the Punjab region, traffic standing still through various points of the city, and tyre-burning factories located to the city’s north.
Separately, at least 15 people were killed and nearly 100 wounded in two pile-ups involving 15 vehicles on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway due to dense smog, local police official Aslam Gondal said.
The first collision was between two trucks and a bus, accounting for three casualties, while the second pile-up involved multiple cars that killed 12 people.
As per the Meteorological Department, the smog would continue to haunt people in Punjab during the next few days.
The Punjab government has hinted that school activities would be halted if the smog situation worsened in the province and has asked public to take reasonable precautions against smog to protect themselves and their families
So-called fine particulate matter are particles 2.5 micrometres in diameter or smaller produced by combustion, and some industrial processes. They are linked to eye-irritation, coughing, asthma and even heart attacks as well as premature death.
A United Nations last week reported some 300 million children live with outdoor air so polluted it can cause serious physical damage, with the situation most acute in South Asia.
“Pollutants don’t only harm children’s developing lungs. They can actually cross the blood-brain barrier and permanently damage their developing brains and, thus, their futures,” said Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF.