The level of degradation that our environment has suffered owing to the unabated greed of human beings resulting into unrelenting plunder of our natural habitat is horrendous, to put it mildly. Ranging from depletion of the ozone layer in the upper confines of the stratosphere to the erratic behavior of the climatic patterns at the surface of the planet Earth to the melting of ice on the poles, this avarice of the humankind and continuous tinkering with the Mother Nature manifests itself in multiple ways, smog being a recent addition to this long list.

It’s recent in the sense that though the phenomenon is quite old – the term was first coined during the Victorian England in the early 1900s to describe the combination of smoke and fog that often blanketed the city by Dr Henry Antoine des Voeux in his paper, “Fog and Smoke”, which he presented at a meeting of the Public Health Congress in July 1905 – the way it has started to seriously affect the daily lives in our part of the world dates back to only a few years. 

While the type of smog referred to by Dr des Voeux was a combination of smoke and sulfur dioxide, resulting from the heavy use of coal for domestic heating purposes as well as running factories, today’s smog results from a more complex mixture of various air pollutants including nitrogen oxides and other chemical compounds. The interaction of these pollutants with sunlight gives rise to a thick blanket of ground-level ozone that blankets many cities in industrialized countries in the form of a heavy haze and which we refer to as smog. Unlike ozone in the upper atmosphere that occurs naturally and is beneficial because of its protective qualities, ozone at Earth's surface is a man-made air pollutant that can have harmful effects on both humans and the environment.

The list of sources that cause these smog-forming pollutants is quite extensive and includes automobile exhaust, power plants, factories and many consumer products, including paint, hairspray, charcoal starter fluid, chemical solvents, and even plastic popcorn packaging. In typical urban areas, at least half of the smog precursors come from cars, buses, trucks, and boats. And this is where the problem lies: the formation and sustenance of smog is directly related to the exigencies of our modern lifestyle. As our dependence on a mechanical way of life becomes more pronounced, the precursors and sources for smog become more potent.   

This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that smog is often more severe farther away from the sources of pollution. This irony occurs primarily because the chemical reactions that cause smog take place in the atmosphere while pollutants are drifting on the wind. This means that in addition to the pollutants emitted from sources in a given area, ozone and its precursors are transported into that area from sources up to several hundred miles away.

The ways in which smog affects our health and daily lives are multifarious. Anyone who engages in strenuous outdoor activity—from jogging to manual labor—may suffer smog-related health effects. Four groups of people are particularly sensitive to ozone and other air pollutants in smog. These include children; adults who are active outdoors; people with respiratory diseases; and people with unusual susceptibility to ozone.

It can cause or aggravate health problems such as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory problems as well as eye irritation and reduced resistance to coljds and lung infections. The debilitating impact of this phenomenon is not limited to human health as the ozone in smog also stunts vegetation growth causing extensive damage to crops and forests and may accelerate the deterioration of rubber tires, paints and dyes in fabrics.

The phenomenon of smog has made headlines during the last few years in our country – particularly in the central and southern Punjab – as a thick blanket of haze envelops Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan, and other cities during the month of November. The situation has come to such a pass that some environmentalists have started to refer to November as a fifth season. For years, this situation in this part of the border was generally attributed to the smoke from crop-burning in the Indian Punjab but the air quality levels in Lahore smack of a condition that is critically alarming. This can be gauged from the fact that the levels of the dangerous particulates known as PM2.5, small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, had reached 1,077 micrograms per cubic meter in Lahore – more than 30 times what is considered to be the safe limit. Put simply, this means that filth and toxicity in the air in this mega city has assumed such proportions that these can not only be seen as smog but can actually be touched.

The situation was generally lessened to some extent by rain showers that cleared the atmosphere of this toxic haze. The Punjab government has resorted to taking some emergency measures, including a ban on burning crops and solid waste. It also shut down hundreds of factories for not having proper emission-control equipment besides slapping fines on drivers whose vehicles did not meet emissions standards. In addition to that, it has also set up two centers for checking commercial vehicles for compliance.

But the criticality of the situation and its enormity warrants much more than these sporadic and knee-jerk reactions. The economic and environmental toll that smog has started to impose on our society requires chalking out a coherent and well thought-out strategy on this count and its strict implementation. This would include much more serious measures like improving the fuel quality, phasing out fuel-guzzling cars, introducing solar and other renewable sources of energy, planting trees on a large scale, and improving public transportation to reduce the number of cars on the roads.

More importantly, this would mean a change of lifestyle on our part as mature citizens of this country and behaving in a more responsible manner. It would require an understanding on our part that care for the environment is a responsibility that we owe to our future generations. We’ll have to decide what kind of planet we would bequeath to our progeny: a clean, sustainable, livable habitat or a desolate, uninhabitable wasteland.    

The writer is college student and freelance writer on social and environmental issues and could be accessed at ahmedsabeeh.217@gmail.com.