Air pollution could bring 'killer fog' to large cities

A spectator wearing a mask walks through a thick smog during the Panasonic Indian Open golf tournament in Gurgaon on November 15, 2019. (AFP)

If the problem of air pollution continues to worsen, the world's big cities could face London's fate in 1952, when as many as 12,000 people are thought to have died from 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.

"Cold air, more fuel used to warm up, cold polluted fog and smoke as a result of trapped pollutants at the ground level caused a major environmental disaster," Hüseyin Toros, an expert on atmospheric science and air quality at Istanbul Technical University, told Anadolu Agency.

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

"In 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.

Defining air pollution as an increase of harmful substances in the air due to pollutants released into the atmosphere as a result of human activities and natural events, he said it is a serious problem that negatively affects the lives of living things in general and causes economic losses as well as physical damage.

"Air pollution causes an estimated 7 million deaths each year and nine out of 10 people breath polluted air," said Toros, citing World Health Organization (WHO) reports.

He added that nearly one 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 has decreased -- comparing with 1990s 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 particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide pollution," he said.

He said people can improve air quality by making 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 Anadolu Agency.

Mentioning the close relationship between climate change and air pollution, she said pollutants highly 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 said air pollution increases the frequency and strength of natural disasters such as droughts and flooding as well as the extinction of species and common diseases which could lead to "the collapse of entire ecosystems if nothing is done immediately to reduce carbon emissions".

"Governments need to commit to immediately stop all forms of support towards 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."

Explaining the reasons behind New Delhi's condition, she stressed that the current smog there is attributed to various factors such as agricultural activities as ----crop stubble is burned to clear fields in neighboring countries annually during this time of the year.

"This combined with fumes from vehicles, emissions from industrial activities and construction have contributed to the increased air pollution," she added.

Vidit Baya, an 18-year-old climate activist, shared his experience on the air pollution issue in India with Anadolu Agency.

Noting that the destruction of nature drove him to climate activism followed by clean-up 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 to 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 although some positive steps have been taken such as banning single use plastics and launching the "Swachh Bharat Mission", a nationwide campaign for the 2014 to 2019 period which 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 laws 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 consumption of resources and emit less carbon in the environment.

"We as the youth are raising 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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