Gasping for Cleaner Air

Sri Lanka has introduced cleaner burning fuels over the past five years. However, the battle for cleaner air is far from won

By Nalaka Gunawardene.

Published on December 03, 2014 with No Comments


Sri Lanka will be hosting the Better Air Quality 2014 international conference from 19 to 21 November in Colombo (htttp:// BAQ is the biennial flagship event of Clean Air Asia, a regional alliance of governments, companies and civil society groups committed to improving air quality in our region.
The pursuit of clean air has never been more urgent. As the adverse health effects of air pollution have become clearer in recent years, we realise that it causes much more than coughs or wheeze.
A scientific threshold was crossed last year, when the World Health Organization (WHO) classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans. Exposure to polluted air can cause cancer in lungs and also increase the risk of cancer in the bladder, said the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialised arm of the WHO.
Air pollution is a basket term. It covers dozens of individual chemical compounds and particulates that get mixed up in the air we breathe. Their levels vary due to differences in the sources of pollution, climate and weather, as well as location (for example, Colombo benefits from proximity to the sea, while Kandy does not).
“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” says Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Section that ranks all carcinogens. “We now know that outdoor air pollution is not only a major risk to health in general, but also a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”
Many health effects are caused by prolonged exposure, and effects are cumulative. The biggest villain is particulate matter – tiny pieces of solid or liquid matter floating in the air.

Mounting Disease Burden

Outdoor air pollution – caused mostly by transport, thermal power generation, industrial and agricultural activities – has long been known to cause respiratory ailments. Some years ago researchers found a link to heart disease. But the magnitude of air pollution’s total disease burden was quantified only in recent years (with more reliable data and better analysis).
According to WHO, exposure to ambient fine particles contributed to (at least) 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2010. Much of this was due to heart disease, but 223,000 deaths were attributable to lung cancer. More than half of lung cancer deaths occurred in China and East Asian countries. South Asia was not far behind.
In Sri Lanka, over 60% of outdoor air pollution comes from vehicles burning petrol or diesel. This is due to the rapid growth in the number of vehicles, poor quality of fuel used, importing of sub-standard or outdated vehicles/parts, and traffic congestion.
Policy and regulatory efforts to clean up the air began in the early 1990s. In 2000, the Ministry of Environment gazetted regulations for ambient air, fuel quality and vehicle import standards. These came into effect three years later.
Since then, some progress has been made – for example in ridding our petrol of lead additives in 2002 (after a decade-long advocacy by environmental groups), and banning three wheelers using two-stroke engines from 2011. But much more remains to be done.

Deadly Diesel
A priority is cleaning up our diesel, which currently contains one of the highest levels of sulphur in Asia. A first step was taken last August when ‘Lanka Super Diesel 4 Star’ was made available from selected filling stations islandwide.
Until then, Super Diesel marketed by the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) had a sulphur content of 500 ppm (parts per million). From August, that level came down to 10 ppm.
But the potential benefit of this measure is rather limited: most vehicles use regular (auto) diesel, which contains sulphur levels of 2,500 ppm. According to Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya, energy planning specialist, out of Sri Lanka’s total diesel consumption in 2012, only 1.1% was super diesel.
Media reports said that CPC has plans to ‘clean up’ normal diesel too, by bringing down sulphur levels to 1,000 ppm. No timeframe was given for that switch.
Why is cleaning up diesel such a big deal? Because diesel is the far deadlier fuel: on average, a diesel car can emit seven times more air toxics than petrol cars of comparable engine power.
After suspecting its cancer-causing potential for years, WHO declared in 2012 that diesel fumes certainly cause cancer – especially lung cancer – in humans. Diesel exhausts are now in the WHO’s Group 1 list of substances – in the same league as asbestos, arsenic and tobacco. In Sri Lanka, diesel vehicles made up nearly half (45%) of the total fleet by end 2010. And according to analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a Delhi-based research and advocacy organisation, these contributed a disproportionately high pollution load from the transport sector – nearly all (96%) sulphur dioxide emissions and most (89%) of tiny particulate matter known as PM10.
CPC operates Sri Lanka’s sole oil refinery. According to Air Resource Management Center (AirMAC) at the Environment Ministry, sulphur reduction modification of the existing facility is estimated to cost $ 500 million (around Rs. 65 billion). The alternative, of expanding and modifying it, will cost around $2 billion (Rs. 260 billion).

We are talking real money here, but at stake is public health.
Quantifying health costs of polluted air is never easy. In 2006, Dr Sunil Chandrasiri of the University of Colombo estimated up to Rs22 billion worth of annual health damage costs from diesel emissions in Greater Colombo alone (
Cleaner diesel has other benefits, too. Lower sulphur improves engine performance. Inferior fuel (say, diesel with sulphur content of 1,000 ppm) can reduce the life span of engines by 10% to 20%.

Beyond clean fuel
Experts have flagged the need to develop quality standards for fuels used in industrial and power sectors as soon as possible. Many thermal power plants burn regular diesel, while a few use furnace oil or heavy diesel.
Cleaning up fuel quality is important because it is a centralised action with immediate countrywide benefits. Parallel to this, we still have to tackle millions of moving sources of air pollution – the two, three and four wheeled vehicles. Exhaust emission testing, introduced a few years ago for motorcars, needs to be streamlined and extended to passenger and goods transport vehicles.
What impact, if any, is the growing number of hybrid cars on our roads having on air quality? And how widespread is indoor air pollution, especially from firewood burning cooking stoves that expose women and children to smoke laden with fumes and particulate matter?
We simply don’t know enough – because Sri Lanka’s air quality monitoring is woefully inadequate. There are big gaps in the quality and quantity of scientific data. Official monitoring by state agencies has been irregular, and independent researchers can’t achieve wide enough coverage. Without a good evidence base, policy and regulatory actions tend to be speculative.
At a deeper level, cleaner air is linked to macro factors like good urban planning, functional mass transit systems and the creation of healthy, liveable cities. That’s the value of BAQ – a platform of events covering transport, energy, industry and climate change concerns, with emphasis on government policies and measures.
The host city Colombo is better paved and neater today, but achieving cleaner air needs sustained action on many fronts.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter @NalakaG and blogs at


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