If there is one point that not all are agreeing to these days is the weather conditions in Lahore, the second largest city of Pakistan. While some are hash tagging foggy early mornings, there are others who have started worrying about the bitterness of the foggy weather, and all for the right reasons.

For the fifth year now, smog has returned to Lahore with ever increasing intensity. According to AirVisual – the world's number 1 air pollution app and website that offers free access to the world's largest air quality database, spanning 9000 plus cities globally – Lahore's Air Quality Index (AQI), that is a measure of PM2.5 concentration was over 300 ?g/m³ at the time of writing this article, which belongs to the extreme category – Hazardous.

This is not a one-time occurrence; Lahore has topped the worlds most polluted cities rankings numerous times in the last two months, remaining in the top five at least. One can understand these readings as instantaneous readings of air quality more akin to temperatures at different times of the day, thus the data changes over time.

However, the average numbers for Lahore aren't good at all either. The annual average PM2.5 conc. is 116 ?g/m³ for 2017 for Lahore, which is 11 times the WHO guidelines and three times the safe limits for yearly exposure as defined in Pakistan's National Environmental Quality Standards (NEQS).

So what needs to be done? First and foremost, there is a dire need for public awareness as well as acknowledgment of the issue at hand at the top levels. There is uncertainty, scepticism and sheer denial among people regarding the nature of weather conditions, the causes and the severity of the issue. Crop burning in winters to get ready from rice to wheat crops is one important factor that has heightened the pollutions levels in Pakistani and Indian Punjab. There were 11,099 fire alerts from crop burning across Pakistan in November 2017, and majority of them were in the areas between Lahore and Gujranwala. Other contributory factors include industrial pollution, vehicle emissions, construction, deforestation etc.

Public awareness of the issue and its consequences should be paramount to begin some sort of activism. A step in the right direction was the launch of Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI) last year that provides community-driven air quality data to increase social awareness. The average figures for Lahore mentioned above were taken from PAQI. Also, Environmental Protection Department (EPD) of Punjab has finally started to report air quality data for selected areas, which is a start.

Health concerns related to air pollution should also be stressed. PM 2.5, the particle most damaging to health, is associated with respiratory diseases, cardiovascular risks and premature mortality. And in a recent research by a group in Shanghai also shows that PM2.5 significantly increases levels of stress hormones, like cortisol, cortisone, epinephrine and norepinephrine; it also results in higher blood pressure, inflammation and insulin resistance.

EPD requires capacity building with more resources and facilitation from other departments for an inclusive strategy. While a clear line of action should be adopted by the authorities, simple actions at personal level should also be highlighted. These include usage of air purifiers, wearing protective respiratory masks, etc. And finally, there is a need to be a collective action and a coordinated plan from the two Punjab's – Indian and Pakistani can help ease the sufferings of people to some extent.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018