Happy New Year, dear readers! Hopefully you too have been borne into 2019 on a wave of shaadi karahi, fresh naan and indigestion corrected by kinoos in the smog as the bored children on winter break frolic around you. Lahore winter used to be the highlight of our year, that delightful time where you could actually be outside for extended periods of time, doing fun outdoorsy things like foreigners—walks! Going to the park! Sitting in the outdoor seats at a restaurant! Wearing your jeans without fainting of heat-stroke! It’s delicious. And all the family and friends who live abroad come to visit, bearing all your online shopping and treats for the kids that you “keep safe” for them. Glorious. Except now the environment has gone to pieces, the government is oblivious to it and Lahoris are engulfed by the worst air in the region. You eat your American candy trapped inside the room where the air purifier is running. You go to the park, but with a mask on your face. The foyer of my house has a nifty little basket where the household deposits their masks when they come in, and retrieves them when they go out. There used to be packets of chips in that basket, but we can’t eat and stave off dangerous particles at the same time.

On the festive wave, I recently drove up to Islamabad, where the air is merely “bad for sensitive groups”, and sometimes “unhealthy”. It was like being in heaven, to see clear blue skies that weren’t secretly harbouring toxic muck and to breathe air that actually smelled and tasted fresh, and didn’t leave a film of something nasty at the back of your throat. Lahore, to the reader who doesn’t have an air quality index (AQI) app on their phone, is usually in the “hazardous” region. When it rains, it might go to “unhealthy”, but literally within hours it is back to the worst possible levels. We are far past blaming Diwali and farmers’ crop burning practices for our air. We should be operating at emergency levels but instead, we are quite literally walking around in a haze of ignorance.

Breathing this level of toxic air is shaving five to ten years off all of our lives. At this rate, the air in Lahore is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Two packs. People who smoke that much are classified as extremely heavy smokers, and smokers are up to ten times more likely to contract lung cancer. These are legitimate statistics. Cities like New York and London experienced these kind of smog conditions during the Industrial Revolution, when the sudden development of factories that used coal to fire their furnaces meant that the rate of toxic emissions skyrocketed. London was notorious for it’s ‘pea-soup’ fog—i.e, fog so thick and dense it was like walking through gloopy soup. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, and it was in that kind of fog that Jack the Ripper used to operate, killing women in the streets. Once the correlation between industry and the air was made though, and enough people had died of respiratory disease, these cities took concrete steps to clean their air up. It’s not impossible at all, or irreversible. Surely instead of having to learn the hard way, it would be the easiest thing to just follow the precedent set by these cities, amongst others, and crack down on pollution?

The Environmental Protection Agency keeps insisting that we aren’t as bad as Delhi, that our statistics aren’t accurate because they are being derived from monitors maintained by private citizens. But that begs the question as to why the EPA’s monitors are either nonexistent or not functional. Where is the government data then? And what good does it do to us to check Delhi’s AQI and breathe a choking sigh of relief? Newsflash: Lahore’s air is officially as bad as Delhi’s, long touted to have the highest AQI in the world. A lot of Indian cities have bad air, but it’s reductive to compare oneself to the worst. That’s not how improvement happens, as anyone who went to school and competed to be first in class knows. You try to be better than the best to win. I suppose now we know how the EPA let us get to this place.

So if the government seems to have it’s head in the haze, then it’s up to Lahoris to take charge. We, the adults, might be better off because we had the benefit of childhoods that didn’t leave our lungs lined with particulate filth, but our children do not have that luxury. The thing to watch for, when buying masks and air purifiers, is a HEPA filter and a PM filter. These clean the air of particulate matter, which is crucial—a lot of toxic matter stays suspended in the air and doesn’t lodge itself in our lungs, but when toxic matter adheres to these tiny particles, called 2.5 (that’s the size), it finds a carrier for inhalation. Particles that are inhaled stay in the lungs, and the body has no way of being able to break them down to neutralise them. This is why a cloth mask is not helpful—at the very least a surgical mask (that flimsy green one that doctors and nurses wear) helps keep 50% of particulate matter at bay. A proper mask, like the round white ones that 3M makes, will keep up to 98% particles out of your lungs. AQ Filter makes masks in three sizes, so they will fit your child’s face properly. Google is your friend, and many online vendors sell these masks, as well as air purifiers. Doctors advise strongly against strenuous exercise outside without a mask on, because that also increases the volume of dirty air going into your lungs. Walkers and runners, mask up. Put a mask on your kids when they go cycling and to school.

We can do this in the short term, but our long term plan has got to include lobbying the provincial government at every turn. Badger your councillor, badger government people at weddings and dinners, write emails. Write articles, tweet. And keep trying to do your bit—do carpools with neighbours to reduce car emissions. Educate your household help, give them masks. Don’t burn leaves and ask the neighbours not to either. Keep windows shut and always remember to shoot down any fool who thinks the haze is just “nice cloudy weather”. It is the most toxic, dangerous thing to befall this city—this is the closest we can get to a modern-day azaab.

 

The writer is a feminist based

in Lahore.

 m.malikhussain@gmail.com

@cyclestand4.