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Air pollution and increasing

rate of cancer in Sri Lanka
By Prof. O. A. Ileperuma-June 30, 2014
There have recently been newspaper reports about the increasing
rate of cancer in Sri Lana. This coul! be attribute! to a multitu!e of factors inclu!ing
contaminate! water" foo! an! air an! is a comple# problem which nee!s e#tensive scientific
investigations. In mo!ern times" people are continuously !rifting from the natural ways of life
to highly complicate! urban lifestyles. The net result is that they eat foo! contaminate! with
pestici!es" heavy metals an! various pathogens. They !rin water contaminate! with various
chemicals" !isease agents an! in!ustrial waste. $unicipality water schemes which normally get
their water from rivers are contaminate! with pestici!es an! other chemicals. In particular"
there is an increasing ten!ency to eat out an! these prepare! foo!s such as short eats" frie! rice
an! various %!eville!& !ishes are veritable to#ic !umps. Oil use! for frying short eats are use!
many times over an! this is nown to a!! various to#ic aromatic compoun!s into prepare!
foo!s an! many of these are carcinogenic.
'rbanisation is the root cause of most of these evils. (ven villages are not spare! an! now the
lifestyles of rural areas are increasingly becoming more artificial. )illagers also consume
processe! foo!s an! !rin pollute! water.
*e thin about the +uality of water we !rin an! most people boil water to ill any
microorganisms in it before !rining. ,owever" !i! you ever thin about how pure is the air
you breathe- People in cities an! along main highways breathe !irty an! pollute! air. *e are all
familiar with the snee.ing bouts cause! by air containing !ust particles. In a!!ition" people
living in congeste! areas breathe air pollute! not only with !ust an! soot but also to#ic gases
generate! by automobiles an! factories.
Air pollution is the
intro!uction of chemicals" particulate matter" or biological materials that cause harm or
!iscomfort to humans or other living organisms" or !amages the natural vegetation an!
structures into the atmosphere. An air pollutant can be !efine! as a substance present in a
sufficient concentration in air to pro!uce a harmful effect on humans an! other animals"
vegetation or materials.
The main cause of air pollution is the ever increasing vehicle population an! the health impacts
cause! by their emissions will worsen in years to come. The above table gives the number of
motor vehicles annually registere! in Sri Lana. It clearly shows how the motorcycles an! three
wheelers are increasing at an alarming rate. The number of three wheelers has increase! by
/012 an! the number of motorcycles by //12 over a perio! of 3ust nine years. These values
will be much higher now with the increase! number of scooters. The government shoul!
seriously consi!er stopping the import of these categories of motor vehicles" particularly the
three wheelers since alrea!y there alrea!y is an a!e+uate number of them to satisfy the nee!s of
the population. They cause more pollution an! owing to their two stroe engines they pro!uce
more carbon mono#i!e an! fine particles.
4ine particle have attache! to them !angerous unburnt carcinogenic polyaromatic compoun!s
which are carcinogens. 5ecently" Organisation for (conomic 6ooperation of 7evelopment
8O(679 has sai! that by the year /:;:" out!oor air pollution will be the *orl!&s top
environmental cause of mortality ahea! of unclean water an! urban sanitisation. 'rban air
pollution also re!uces crop growth" affects climatic change" !amages concrete structures an!
contributes to aci! rain.
*hile there are options available to at least partly mitigate problems arising from water an!
foo!" pollute! air in cities has no such option. People continuously breathe pollute! air which
has both short-term an! long-term effects. In the short term" people may feel easily tire!"
!evelop hea!aches an! sore eyes an! get fre+uent flu bouts. 6hil!ren an! el!erly are the most
affecte!. Schoolchil!ren can even become susceptible to !ea!ly chronic obstructive pulmonary
!isease 86OP79 which has irreversible effects on the lung. Long term effects are from
breathing foul air are aggravation of asthma" pneumonia" bronchitis" lung cancer an! heart
!iseases.
Another often neglecte! area is in!oor air pollution which is a serious health ha.ar! for people
using firewoo! for cooing" particularly in congeste! itchens. The 'S environment protection
agency 8'S(PA9 has publishe! a list of 10: chemicals present in woo! smoe. 'rban slum
areas with small itchens are +uite unhealthy an! burning one ilo of woo! pro!uces nearly <:-
10:grammes of carbon mono#i!e an! about five grammes of fine carbon particles causing
hea!aches" nausea" shortness of breath an! contributes to general ill health. There are also
!ea!ly cancer causing substances in woo! smoe such as the polyaromatic compoun!s such as
ben.opyrene. =ears of e#posure to such to#ic fumes cause lung cancer" a con!ition commonly
foun! in heavy cigarette smoers after long years of e#posure. These polyaromtic compoun!s
accumulate in our fatty tissues an! their a!verse effects will be felt only after several years of
e#posure. In one scientific stu!y from In!ia it has been shown that in!oor air pollution arising
from biomass burning is responsible for ;: 2 of the ill health among females an! over 1:2 ill
health in chil!ren who normally spen! their time more with their mothers than fathers. ,ealth
effects inclu!e bronchitis" pneumonia an! asthma. There is a nee! to e!ucate the masses about
the ill effects of cooing with firewoo! an! shift such cooing to open air spaces outsi!e the
house. Other common forms of in!oor air pollution inclu!e burning mos+uito coils" passive
cigarette smoe an! househol! pestici!es. In particular" burning of incense stics an! mos+uito
coils insi!e be!rooms shoul! be avoi!e! especially where babies are. Another case of in!oor
air pollution reporte! from the 'S is the occurrence of ra!on" a ra!ioactive gas in homes. This
gas when inhale! !ecays into soli! ra!ioactive elements insi!e the bo!y which then !amages
bo!y tissues by the ra!iation they emit. The origin of ra!on is in granitic rocs which can
contain minute amounts of ra!ioactive elements. Therefore" a!e+uate precautions shoul! be
taen when granite pantry tops an! floor tiles are use! in homes. $aintaining goo! ventilation
by opening win!ows is essential for people e#pose! to granite.
Latest research in!icates that !iesel e#haust fumes cause cancer after prolonge! e#posure. A
prominent global cancer research group" International Agency for 5esearch on 6ancer 8IA569"
has wore! for a number of years on the possibility of !iesel fumes causing cancer an! for the
past two !eca!es has issue! a general warning that !iesel fumes %probably& cause cancer. After
e#tensive research very recently 8$arch /:>?9 they have !eci!e! to lift this classification from
%probably& to a !efinitive clause that it %!efinitely causes cancer&. This organisation wors in
collaboration with the *orl! ,ealth Organisation 8*,O9 an! it is liely that *,O will tae
cognisance of these scientific stu!ies an! issue a similar warning. Such stu!ies have relevance
to those who wor in environments where !iesel powere! generators an! furnaces are in
operation. (ven those continuously e#pose! to !iesel fumes from buses an! lorries such as
traffic policemen" waysi!e bouti+ue owners an! others are at ris.
*hat is the role of government organisations in ensuring that people have clean air to breathe-
The $inistry of (nvironment was create! in >@</ to regulate air" water an! soil pollution an!
to enact laws for creating a healthy environment. The 6entral (nvironmental Authority 86(A9
has a legal man!ate to enforce environmental regulations an! it is trying to implement these
regulations with limite! resources in terms of both e+uipment an! manpower.
An important milestone in the history of (nvironment is the 6lean Air Action Plan initiate! by
the late Presi!ent 5. Prema!asa. That ha! ?@ actions propose! but only a han!ful have been
implemente!. Air +uality monitoring stations were commissione! in >@@A at 6olombo 4ort an!
at Bau!!haloamawatha. These provi!e! air +uality !ata roun! the cloc until about /::/
when the e+uipment became non-operational. 5egrettably" we !o not have any monitoring !one
at the moment even in 6olombo an! there is no way to now whether the air we breathe is safe.
$ost countries inclu!ing neighbouring In!ia have several fully automate! air +uality
monitoring stations while Sri Lana have none. 7evelope! countries give pollution warnings
over ra!io an! T) when the pollution levels e#cee! the safe limits an! a!vise vulnerable
people such as asthmatics an! people with heart !isease to stay in!oors. The government is
!oing a !isservice to its people by not provi!ing a!e+uate fun!s to commission air +uality
monitoring stations in all ma3or cities.