Eat dirt


The real environmental hazard

We’ve all heard of schemes for environmental improvement in urban areas of Pakistan but the Punjab has always taken the lead. Perhaps all this environmental consciousness is borne from the growth rates this Province sustained just over five years ago but we’ve fallen on hard times since then. From waste management to natural gas powered buses, our ecological initiatives may be few and far between, but they all have a remarkable tendency to start stinking faster than they can be churned out by all the Oompa Loompas working at that Chocolate Factory on Lahore’s Mall Road – the Punjab Civil Secretariat.

The few times we have managed to pull off some miracle of environmental improvement, we’ve followed elitist agendas that not only absorb the resources that would have been better (mis)spent elsewhere but create inequitable and ghastly partitions in our cities. Just look at the civil works taking place in and around the city of Lahore nowadays and you would wonder if just one city should be allowed to gobble up what some other town contributed to the provincial kitty. Definitely not. But while contractors and their commission agents would be happy with this state of affairs, your favourite columnist is grumbling.

While we are mulling over an ecological crisis, I think it’s time citizens came to realise that their greatest environmental challenge is probably not the internal combustion engine or some paper factory’s smoke stack at all but something far more humble. To my mind, the dust in our urban environment is far more dangerous as it affects more people and it’s unavoidable. You practically swim in it every day. Whether you are jogging in the park or driving down a road with the window open, dust will find you. So here are some reasons why you should be carrying face masks wherever you go.

Road dust in our urban areas is not just a nuisance for pedestrians and thousands of unenclosed commuters using motorbikes or cycles, its killing them. For the humble grains blowing hither and tither carry a lot more than simple organic matter when they enter your respiratory system. After all dust serves us a sinister cocktail of silica, aluminium, toxic metals, and bacteria – all garnished with dead skin cells from my fellow countrymen. It sounds yummy but it isn’t. This particulate matter, especially the tiny stuff, doesn’t just settle down with the moisture in our mouths or nasal passages and adversely affects human health by venturing much further. Particles that evade being filtered out in the nose or throat can collect in the lung tissues, causing injury to the lungs. How badly they do so depends entirely on the amount of dust and kinds of particles involved.

So it appears the first thing the government needs to do if it has the political will to control dust is to analyse it, especially in communities situated in and around industrial or construction activities. If composition can be determined scientifically then that in itself is a major step forward. To actually reduce the dust in urban areas however will require a multi-pronged strategy if it is to succeed and no manner of half-baked arrangements would do.

We know that the major sources of dust in Pakistan are unpaved roads, uncovered construction materials and wind blown dust. Yet we allow this dust to first settle and then be re-suspended up to several hundred feet in the air whenever a vehicle goes over it. If you can see it, chances are that you are breathing it. But seeing it in itself may not be such a bad thing after all. We can put pressure on the government to control dust only when we can see it with our own eyes. But the more important issue would always be the fine particles which we don’t see. So let the government tell us what is the dust composition and we can decide on a course of action for ourselves. Until then, if you must feel absolutely compelled to breathe in our cities, don’t inhale.

And if you have come to accept dust as something that you just have to live with every day, you would do well to remember the video footage from 9/11 when dust had its way with the people of New York City. God forbid such a horrendous event should occur here but we have no need of Bin Laden to subject citizens to this form of torture. Perhaps it is time for governments to make meaningful improvements in our lives and stop paying lip service to public health and the environment.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.


  1. LOL…Oompa Loompas working at that Chocolate Factory on Lahore’s Mall Road – the Punjab Civil Secretariat.

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