By Ranil Senanayake –
Air pollution has become a very serious and very visible burden on humanity. The WHO estimated that it was responsible for 3 million premature deaths worldwide per year in 2012; much of this mortality is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5-10 microns in diameter (PM10) which cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers.
Even healthy people experience health impacts from polluted air, the effects include respiratory irritation or breathing difficulties during exercise or outdoor activities. The current health status and the pollutant type and concentration, or and the length of exposure to the polluted air, determines the rate of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and cancers. High air pollution levels can cause immediate health problems.
The air in Colombo is already of poor quality. The PM10 has an annual average of 36 µg/m3 of these particles. That’s 3.6 times the safe level set by the WHO. While the well- being of the citizens of Colombo seem the least important to the the planners of our future, we need to inform ourselves on the cost we have to pay, so that we could defend ourselves from the consequences of ill-informed decision making.
The current air pollution level in all of Sri Lanka has an annual average of 22 µg/m3 of PM2.5 particles which is 2.2 times the WHO safe level. It has also been estimated that in 7,792 people died from air pollution-related disease and that the rate is increasing each year. The top illness caused by air pollution is Ischemic heart disease. Further, 33 children die of air pollution-related diseases every year. Currently The main source of ambient air pollution in Sri Lanka is vehicular emissions, which in Colombo contributes to over 60% of total emissions. But, lurking in the activities of the proposed Port City, there is a huge hidden danger. The danger that uncontrolled construction debris will pose to air quality and to the health of the residents of Colombo city.
Construction activities that contribute massively to air pollution include: land filling, operation of diesel engines, demolition, burning, and working with toxic materials. All construction sites generate high levels of dust (typically from concrete, cement, wood, stone, silica) which can carry for large distances over a long period of time. Construction dust is classified as PM10 or particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter, invisible to the naked eye.
Research has shown that PM10 penetrates deeply into the lungs and cause a wide range of health problems including respiratory illness, asthma, bronchitis and even cancer.
Another major source of PM10 on construction sites comes from the diesel engine exhausts of vehicles and heavy equipment. This is known as diesel particulate matter (DPM) and consists of soot, sulphates and silicates, all of which readily combine with other toxins in the atmosphere, increasing the health risks of particle inhalation.
We have witnessed a lame, shameful excuse for an EIA and SEIA on the Port City landfill that was accepted by the Environmental Ministry. The landfill was facilitated without responding to any of the public concerns. While the legality of these actions will be discussed into the future, current public interest should focus on the Phase 2 EIA: Construction of the buildings and infrastructure of the Port City. This EIA will be based on the concept master plan and infrastructure requirements submitted to the UDA (and described in Chapter 2 of the SEIA ). The construction of permanent structures/built environment on the landfill will take place only upon receiving necessary approvals for the Phase 2 EIA study.
As we have learnt to expect from past performance, there will be a secret Phase 2 EIA which will be approved out of the public eye and construction will be allowed to begin. Land will be sold and we will be told that they cannot control the development activity. Before this happens, we must demand a public hearing of the Phase 2 EIA of the Port City to be conducted before any approvals are given. But irrespective of that, there should be a maximal allowable limit on air pollution set at today’s level. Any activity that contributes to pollution exceeding these levels, must be penalized by the Government.
The price of increasing the air pollution burden will be, accelerated aging of the lungs, Loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function, development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer, shortened life spans etc. Is this what we want for ourselves when we breathe?
Long-term exposure to polluted air will have permanent health effects, those most affected will be, individuals with heart disease, coronary artery disease or congestive heart failure, Individuals with lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pregnant women, outdoor workers, older adults and the elderly, children under age 14, athletes who exercise vigorously outdoors.
Can we expect the Municipality or Ministry of Health to follow the example in the United states, where eight northeastern states sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to impose more stringent controls on a group of mostly Midwestern states whose air pollution they claim is being blown in their direction and creating public health problems in their communities? The airborne pollution was being created by burning fossil fuels and through the use of cement and construction chemicals in the Midwestern states. They should place stringent controls on air quality now.
As the skyline to the sea around Colombo will be increasingly blocked by current unplanned construction happening today, the through flow of air will be reduced. We can already see this happening. Allowing another barricade to airflow to be created in front of that, should be seen as an infringement of one’s basic right to a healthy breath. It seems tragic that no politician wants to act of the defense of public health, our only hope is that it is the president himself who is the Minister for the Environment, can direct his ministry to act in the defense of the quality of air. If not, we will begin to lose our health, with every breath we take…