ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 17
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Wijeya Pariganaka

The silent killer

Battling our way through congested roads and traffic snarls behind belching buses and three-wheelers, to get to work or school each day, is something most of us accept with weary resignation. But can we afford to be so stoic about the silent killer in our midst -- air pollution?

There is no doubt that air pollution in Colombo and its suburbs is increasing at an alarming rate. Recent studies have shown that the levels of the worst prevalent pollutants such as Particulate Matter (PM10), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) and Ozone (O3), are significantly higher than the World Health Organisation recommended levels and continued exposure to these can lead to respiratory ailments, heart disease, cancer and reduced life-expectancy. Asthma has become the second highest respiratory illness requiring hospitalisation, and its rising toll has been attributed to the enormous increase in two and three-wheelers and fuel consumption. Children are especially vulnerable. Statistics from the country's premier children's hospital, the Lady Ridgeway, from 2000 to 2003 reveal that on average 9,500 children were admitted annually with respiratory diseases, more than one-tenth the total number of admissions.

Such problems are not the exclusive preserve of modern economically-developed countries. Nations in our region have faced worse but the difference is that countries such as India and Bangladesh are tackling the issue - and very effectively at that.

Yet we have seen little or no constructive action taken to improve the ambient air quality, apart from the introduction of unleaded petrol by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation in July 2003. A proposal put forward to Cabinet in 2003 to ban two-stroke engines -recognised as one of the largest contributors to urban air pollution - was also shelved with no question of renewal.

According to a recent study done in Sri Lanka with assistance from USAID/USAEP (United States Agency for International Development)/ (United States-Asia Environmental Partnership), the Remote Emission Testing data have shown very high Hydrocarbon (HC) emission from two-stroke three-wheelers -- as high as 23,394 ppm - which is about 16 times the standard set for four-stroke cars. A two-stroke engine may emit up to 10 times as much as a four-stroke engine in terms of HC.

A World Bank expert Kseniya Lvovsky has pointed out that the annual average PM10 levels in Colombo exceeds the USAEP standard of 50 ug/m3, and that in hot spots it is 84 ug/m3, which is most representative of average resident exposure. This level of exposure may each year cause three million episodes of respiratory illness, 1000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 150 excess deaths and health damage equivalent to $US 30 million.

The emission standards gazetted under the National Environmental (Air Emission, Fuel and Vehicle Importation Standards) Regulations No. 1 of 2003, effective from July 2003, indicates that the Hydrocarbon level for petrol cars is 1,200 ppm and for petrol motor cycles and trishaws, the limit is 9,000 ppm. However, in countries like China and Cambodia this limit is three times lower at 3,000 ppm.

Our Sunday Times Insight earlier this month revealed that a vehicle emission testing programme scheduled to begin in June 2003 that could help solve the problem is still pending, with authorities citing legal and administrative causes for its delay -- another measure relegated to the back-burner, because of the country's other pressing problems. Taking tough decisions, after all, is not what we Sri Lankans are known for. Successive governments have taken the easy option of focusing on the immediate, disregarding the long-term interests of the people. After all, the inconvenience caused by tackling the issue and the vested interests involved are not inconsiderable.

India and Bangladesh despite their own internal political compulsions chose to tackle the issue and their success stories should be an example for Sri Lanka. Both countries have banned two-stroke engines in their main cities. But in Sri Lanka, their importation continues unrestricted. One of Delhi's most impressive and far-reaching programmes was the conversion of the city's public transport -- buses, taxis and three-wheelers -- to compressed natural gas CNG or other gaseous fuels in 2000. In Chennai, the major interventions implemented were the lowering of sulphur in diesel to 0.5 percent in 1996, to 0.25 percent in 2000, and to 0.05 percent in 2001. In January 2002, the government prohibited the entry of old buses into the city centre and diverted them to a new terminal on the outskirts of the city.

Can we fight air pollution? More stringent emission standards as well as strong legislation would be needed and overall transportation policy, investment in rapid transport systems, traffic regulation, all must be considered when bringing in new measures to improve urban air quality. Proper details about ambient air quality in Sri Lanka too are imperative if the issue is to be tackled.

That India, Bangladesh and Cambodia are dealing with the problem, is surely proof that we can too. But do we have the will to do it? The difference between an advanced state and a poor country is often the inability of governments to do the right thing at the right time. Isn't it time we ask why these real concerns are swept under the carpet -- for through our apathy, are we not sacrificing the health of our country's citizens, especially the young, at the altar of political expediency and inefficiency?

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