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Towards lead free society

  1. Budget 2000-2001
  2. Revival of sick units
  3. It is not a routine budget
  4. Comman man and the budget
  5. Towards lead free society
  6. The declining prices of Palm oil

Environmental degradation is taking a heavy toll on the economics of the country

By Syed M. Aslam
Jun 26 - Jul 02, 2000

Environmental issues still much remain an academic topic worthy of attracting only intellectual rhetoric, workshops, seminars, and walks which have become a vogue throughout Pakistan. In practice, however, environment — or rather its degradation- has reached alarming levels to take a heavy human toll in the country.

A drive through any major thoroughfare in any of the urban centres of the country is guaranteed to leave a soar taste of unburned carbon, lead and sulfur in one's month. Sights of motorcyclists as well as traffic cops donning masks have become a common sight in the cities across the country.

Successive governments have done practically nothing to improve the quality of air that we breathe and the water that we drink. Instead every single one of them had taken the easy way out by resorting to pay heavy lip-service to the importance of better environment restricting themselves to advertisement in print and electronic media. They failed to do anything in practice except announcing policies which were never implemented in letter and spirit. This has created a mass public awareness which remains excessively unmatched in practical works.

Environmental degradation is taking a heavy toll on the economics of the country — fishermen has to travel farther for the catch as industrial and chemical affluents and its untreated dumping into the sea has driven the fish farther away from the shores and the massive cutting of wood for fuel has shrunken an already small forest cover at huge ecological costs on one hand and destabilising the nature on the other to render the land increasingly flood-prone. It is also taking a heavy human toll as increasingly impure air put the health and lives of millions of people at great risks.

Today, according to one estimate, some 1,850 tonnes of smoke fell over Karachi every single day the majority of which comes from the vehicles and industries. Lead and sulfur, two of the main additives of fuel by the transportation sector, are playing havoc to the health of people. The number of lead related diseases are increasing by every passing year. Though statistics are not available a sizeable portion of urban population are reportedly suffering from such diseases as loss of memory, indigestion, insomnia, and a series of other related maladies.

Lead, tetraethyl lead which is an organic compound of lead, is added to petrol to reduce 'knocking' which results from uneven burning of the fuel. Used in both regular and super grades of motor petrol and aviation fuels, lead usually adds about 10 octane number to petrol, which is basically an indication of power. Internationally, regular petroleum has 89 octane number while its super variety has 97 octane number. However, the minimum octane number requirement in Pakistan is a minimum 80 for regular, 87 each for premium and low-lead premium, and 97 for HOBC motor fuels as per Pakistan Standard Institute (PSI), Ministry of Science and Technology.

Tetraethyl lead petrol was first went on sale in the US in 1923 but the awareness about the harms of lead which easily founds it way into the human body through inhaling and mixes up with the blood resulted in the phased replacement of it by unleaded fuel in the 1970s. Today car fuel in the US and all developed countries is unleaded.

Despite paying lip-service about the improvement of environment, or at least stop its further degradation, no practical measure has been taken by the successive governments in Pakistan to at least initiate the use of unleaded petrol in Pakistan. According to observers the content of lead in the petrol used in the country is one of the highest anywhere with total disregard to the immense danger it poses to human productivity, health and the ultimate lives.

Recently, the federal minister for Environment, Omar Asghar Khan, has said that his ministry is cooperating with the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources to reduce lead and sulfur content in the petrol. Initially, he informed the participants of a workshop on 'Industrial Policy and Environment' in Islamabad, that initially the Attock Oil Refinery has reduced the quantity of lead from 0.412 gram per litre to 0.35 gram per litre. He also said that when the Parco refinery will start operating next year the lead content will be further reduced to 0.15 gram per litre adding that a target to reduce the sulfur content to 1 gram per litre will also ultimately be done.

This makes a good reading, and an occasion for joy, as it promises that at least a beginning has been made. However, it also shows that the use of harmful leaded fuel will not only continue in the country but also as the anticipated reduction in lead and sulfur content would mean following the PSI requirements which should have been followed years ago.

For instance, the per litre PSI requirements for motor petrol calls for maximum lead content of 0.42 gram for regular petrol; 0.63 gram for premium; 0.35 gram for low-lead premium; and 0.84 gram for HOBC. In case of sulfur, the PSI requirement is an even 1 gram per litre for all the varieties listed above.

Like elsewhere in the world, transport sector is the chief culprit in the growth of harmful lead and sulfur-dioxide emissions in Pakistan, where it is the biggest user of petroleum products. During 1990-99 it used an average of 47.7 per cent of total petroleum products in the country. Isn't it time to at least make a beginning to introduce unleaded fuel to replace the leaded fuel to save the looming human catastrophy even it costs a little more?