'Killer fog' caused by air pollution threatening big cities

Published 18.11.2019 13:27
A student wears a mask as he waits to be picked up in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 30, 2019. (REUTERS)
A student wears a mask as he waits to be picked up in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 30, 2019. (REUTERS)

If the problem of air pollution continues to worsen, the world's largest metropolises could face the same fate as that of London in 1952, when as many as 12,000 people are thought to have died from the dense smog that smothered the city, according to an expert.

On Dec. 5 that year, a high-pressure weather system caused cold air to be trapped below warmer air higher up. As a result, emissions from factories and domestic fires could not be released into the atmosphere and remained trapped near ground level, producing the worst pollution-based fog in the city's history.

"A mixture of cold air, higher fuel use for heating, cold polluted fog and smoke from pollutants trapped on ground level caused a major environmental disaster," Hüseyin Toros, an expert on atmospheric science and air quality at Istanbul Technical University (ITU), told Anadolu Agency (AA).

Toros says that if the necessary measures are not taken, the deadly incident – known as the "Great Smog of London," which caused between an estimated 4,000 to 12,000 deaths in five days – most of which included children, the elderly and people with respiratory problems – could be the fate of other large cities in the future.

"Over the last century, air pollution has been increasing – especially in winters – due to intense and unplanned urbanization, industrialization, an increase in the number of fossil-fueled motor vehicles and low-quality fuel usage," he said.

The expert defined air pollution as an increase of harmful substances in the air caused by pollutants released into the atmosphere as a result of human activities and natural events. Toros underlined the severity of the issue, stating that air pollution had serious consequences for living organisms in general, causing economic losses as well as physical damage.

"Air pollution causes an estimated 7 million deaths each year and nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air," said Toros, citing World Health Organization (WHO) figures. He added that nearly 1 million animal and plant species are in danger of extinction as a result of the abusive use of resources.

Speaking about the air quality in Turkey, he said air pollution had decreased compared to 1990s levels as a result of the use of natural gas as an energy source and improvements in industrial facilities. "However, sometimes and in some provinces, we are still not able to meet WHO limit values for specific matter and nitrogen dioxide pollution," he said.

He said that people could improve air quality through more efficient use of energy resources, increasing the use of renewable energy, avoiding unnecessary consumption and reducing waste. "The extraction and burning of fossil fuels, causing increased carbon emissions in the atmosphere, is the cause of climate change," Patricia Mallam, an environmental advocate and senior communications specialist in the Pacific region for climate charity 350.org, told AA.

Emphasizing the close relationship between climate change and air pollution, she said pollutants greatly contribute to global warming. "Many air pollutants, including black carbon, ground-level ozone and sulfate aerosols, contribute to climate change by affecting the amount of incoming sunlight that is reflected or absorbed by the atmosphere, contributing to the process of global warming."

She states that air pollution increases the frequency and strength of natural disasters, such as droughts and flooding, as well as the extinction of species and the spread of common diseases which could lead to "the collapse of entire ecosystems if nothing is done immediately to reduce carbon emissions," adding that "Governments need to commit to immediately stopping all forms of support toward the fossil fuel industry and to hasten a just and equitable transition to 100% renewable energy for all. Stop all new coal, oil and gas projects."

Construction, agricultural and industrial activities

Touching on the situation in India's capital, New Delhi, which was ranked the most polluted city in the world as of Nov. 17 according to Swiss-based IQ AirVisual, she said the city's air quality was at the "hazardous" level. "The air quality index of the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi stood at "hazardous" levels of 497 as of Nov. 11, with levels of airborne PM 2.5 – particles that can reach deep into the lungs – touching nearly 700 in parts of the city, which is more than 10 times the recommended safe limit of 60 for PM 2.5."

Mallam explained the reasons behind Delhi's dire levels of smog as the result of various factors, including agricultural practices such as the burning of crop stubble to clear fields in neighboring areas during this time of the year. "This combined with fumes from vehicles, emissions from industrial activities and construction, contributing to increased air pollution," she added.

Vidit Baya, an 18-year-old climate activist, shared his experience with India's air pollution issue with AA.

Noting that the destruction of nature drove him to climate activism followed by cleanup projects, tree planting activities and membership in the Indian chapter of the Fridays For Future protest movement started by Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg, he said they demand leaders move toward sustainability and promote large-scale production of renewable resources.

"Not only does [air pollution] affect the human population, but it also leads to the generation of various natural calamities which the world is facing today," he said. "Our activities have put our next generation's future at stake, and we aren't doing enough to tackle it."

Speaking on the Indian government's activities to tackle climate change, he said that although some positive steps had been taken, such as banning single-use plastics and launching the "Swachh Bharat Mission," a nationwide campaign for the 2014 to 2019 period that aims to promote cleanliness and a greener environment, there are still huge environmental problems.

"The pollution problem in India is growing because of the lack of strict implementation of the law and a growing demand for resources. Our capital, New Delhi, has been called a "gas chamber" on various occasions because of the hazardous air it had. Health emergencies have been declared, schools and institutions were closed for a few days and people were advised not to leave their homes," Baya said.

Noting that northern India is the most affected part of the country, he said public infrastructure must be improved and modified in order to reduce the consumption of resources and emit less carbon in the environment.

"We as the youth are raising our voices against those who think we'll have a second chance, against those who think they'll 'eat money or coal,' against those who want to hurt 'our home.'"

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