2019-05-31

Air Pollution: Our Very Own Silent Killer

Walking through the streets of Kathmandu, you see more people with masks than without. Over the past few years, a new industry has emerged in the market: the facial mask industry. Surgical masks are sold in every corner shop for five rupees. And if surgical masks don’t complement the rest of your outfit, you can invest a little more in masks with intricate designs and dynamic colors. Going green and looking for something that lasts longer? You can buy masks that come with extra filters. And yes, these come in different colors and designs as well. The prevalence of masks in Kathmandu makes it seem like a fashion trend. Sadly, it’s not a trend. It’s a necessity. And the cause of this necessity needs to be addressed and solved urgently.

According to data from the 2018 Yale Pollution Index, Nepal ranks 180th in air quality. Before you think it could be worse since there are 195 countries in world, the index surveyed 180 countries. And we rank 180th. There are many reasons we’re doing so poorly with our air. We openly burn our waste, disregarding any immediate and eventual consequences. Our traffic jams never seem to end. The city isn’t getting any bigger, the roads aren’t (realistically) getting any bigger. But there’s no shortage of fuel anymore, so why not buy that new car/bike you have been wanting to? That’s what it seems everybody is doing, and no amount of taxation (a 2018 Hyundai Santro costs NPR 6.24 lakh in India, and NPR 24.96 lakh in Nepal) is slowing anyone down. The streets, already too congested, are getting worse everyday. And more vehicles mean more fuel burned, and more pollutants released into the air.

This is already taking a toll on our health. We have high exposure to toxins in the air, including particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns. What this means is that we are constantly breathing in fine particles that settle in our lungs, causing bronchitis, asthma, lung chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular diseases. We’ve turned our city into a perpetual toxic landmass, and this problem is not going to go away by itself.

For now, if you don’t have a mask, please buy one the next time you step outside. Unfortunately, the most popular masks, the surgical ones, are ineffective in keeping out toxins from our lungs. Look for masks that have a rating of N95 or more. A mask with an N95 rating means that it will keep out at least 95% of fine (0.3 microns) test particles. You can find these masks in any large department store or supermarket. You can also find them in online stores.

Masks, however, are not the solution to the problem. They will only allow you to inevitably get sick less quickly. We need to change our mindset urgently. We don’t all need personal vehicles that can fit one, two, four, or five people when a single bus can fit at least 50. We don’t need to burn our waste or send them to landfills because there are enterprises like Doko who can make sure your waste is disposed of responsibly and sustainably. All the policies supporting clean air, clean city, clean environment, clean *fill in the blank* will not matter until we transform our mindset. As the saying goes, change doesn’t happen overnight, but steps must be taken sooner than later if we ever want to go back to anything like those old pictures of Kathmandu we keep seeing circulated around the internet. Back when breathing air in this city rejuvenated you, and didn’t kill you.

Pranav Rajouria,
Communications and Partnerships Coordinator