Archive for the ‘Air pollution’ Category

Bye.. bye.. thinner polythene

February 16, 2016

Published on SundayTimes on 07.02.2016

A man who supplies sili sili bags to shops in Pettah

The Central Environment Authority (CEA) will from next month systematically begin raiding the manufacturers and sellers that do not comply with the ban on polythene less than 20 microns in thickness.

“In January, we made some raids and those found guilty had been given chance to adjust to alternatives. But from February onwards, we will take legal action against those who do not comply,” a CEA spokesman warned.

The manufacture, sale or use of polythene less than 20 microns in thickness was banned from 2007 under the National Environment Act under the directive of President Maithripala Sirisena while he was the minister of environment but the law has until now not been properly implemented.

The thickness of polythene sheets is measured in microns – a unit resembling 0.001 millimeter. These thinner polythene sheets are mostly used in shopping bags or “sili sili bags”, lunch sheets and other packaging materials.

Any form of polythene or plastic takes hundreds of years to decay, polluting the environment, but thinner polythene is more evil as it cannot be recycled. Burning it causes the emission of poisonous gases such as dioxin, so such polythene ends up in garbage dumps.

Dumped bags clog the drainage system, creating floods. Animals such as cattle also feed on polythene bags found on rubbish heaps and become ill or die.

Easy to transport: A day’s shopping all in ‘Sili sili’ bags

The water collected in these disposed bags and wrappers can collect rainwater, making breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread diseases such as dengue. Polythene dumped in waterways finds its way into the ocean, choking and killing marine life.

According to a survey conducted by the Environment Ministry 72 per cent of villagers and 49 per cent of people in urban areas in the Western Province use polythene lunch sheets.

In total, about 500,000 metric tonnes of polythene and plastics are imported into Sri Lanka with 70 per cent of this going into domestic use while 30 per cent is used in export-related industry.

The positive side is that about 40 per cent of the plastics and thicker polythene is being recycled. The CEA currently has six recycling plants in operation and two more awaiting commissioning.

About 160 firms involved in plastic recycling are registered with the CEA and this number is expected to increase.

Worryingly, 60 per cent of the plastic and polythene used domestically ends up in garbage.

The authorities hope the ban on thin polythene will be effective. In Bangladesh, which banned the use of polythene bags in early 2000, media reports say polythene is making an illegal comeback.

A change in consumer attitude is key to the success of the strategy. Experts recommend the widespread teaching of the 3R principles: Refuse, Reuse and Recycle.

As consumers, we all have the power to refuse a polythene bag when it is not necessary and we can carry reusable bags.

Big demand: A shop that sells only ‘sili sili’ bags in Pettah. Pix by Indika Handuwala

Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

September 1, 2015

President Maithripala Sirisena as the Environment Minister said that Steps will be taken to ban import of asbestos roofing sheets by 2018 ( The bad effects of Asbestos sheets has been known for a long time, but little action has been taken. Here is my 2011 article discussing the bad effects of Asbestos, emphasizing the need to minimize its usage.


Are we sitting on an asbestos time bomb?

Once considered a miracle material it kills more than 107,000 people each year-WHO
By Malaka Rodrigo | published on 10.07.2011 on SundayTimes
Asbestos was once tagged as a miracle material for its strength. But the move last month under the Rotterdam Convention, to list asbestos under hazardous materials, which need the prior consent of other countries in international trade, again highlighted safety drawbacks of asbestos.

Central Environment Authority (CEA) Chairman Charitha Herath, who represented Sri Lanka at this symposium, said the move to list white asbestos as a material that required Prior Informed Consent (PIC) did not materialize, adding however that the CEA has initiated an evaluation of asbestos in Sri Lanka. Mr. Herath said the committee comprised representatives from asbestos manufacturers, the Ministry of Health, Customs Department, Board of Investment, National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health, Industrial Technology Institute, World Health Organisation (WHO) and other experts. The CEA, together with the University of Moratuwa, is already in the final stages of preparing an Asbestos Situation Report in Sri Lanka, he said.

Haphazard disposal of asbestos

There are many forms of asbestos, with blue asbestos already banned in Sri Lanka since 1997. But white asbestos (chrysotile asbestos) made by mixing asbestos fibre with cement, continues to be used mainly as roofing sheets. However, a WHO study reveals that all forms pose a health hazard. Asbestos is a fibre deposited in mineral format that needs to be extracted through a mining operation. This fibrous material is chemically known as hydrated magnesium silicate. Roofing sheets account for more than 80% of local asbestos use, but asbestos is also being used for vehicle friction parts such as brake pads.

While this tiny fibre-cement bond does not cause any harm, if it is released into the air and is inhaled over a long period, it can cause lung cancers and other asbestos related diseases. According to a WHO analysis, more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, resulting mainly from occupational exposure. The asbestos-cement bond is said to be safe. But when the roofing sheets are being assembled and disposed, the fibre release is much higher. The bond also tends to loosen when the sheets age, while fungus attack too could cause release of the fibre. Applying a thick layer of paint can reduce this risk, points out some sources.

“The asbestos already on the roofs don’t add much fibre into the air, while trying to remove it will add more fibre into the air. It is the occupational exposure that is more harmful,” said Dr. Harishchandra Yakandawela, National Consultant, Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management WHO- (SAICM), set up under the Rotterdam Convention.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH) revealed that several categories of workers working closely with asbestos related products are at higher risk. It lists asbestos factory workers, carpenters who work on roofing projects, labourers of asbestos stores facilities and workers at building demolishing sites as high risk categories. Motor mechanics are another group exposed to risk as brake pads also contain asbestos fibre. The NIOSH advises workers to use protective equipment, especially when cutting asbestos related materials, which releases lots of dust containing asbestos fibre.

Under its programme with the CEA, the Moratuwa University, also attempts to analyse Sri Lanka’s Cancer Registry, to evaluate a link with occupational related cancer. Around 18,000 are annually diagnosed with cancer in Sri Lanka, but collection of data relating to occupations of the cancer patients has been a difficult task. Dr. Yakandawala also reminded that it can takeabout 20-30 years for the real cancer to emerge, which makes it harder to track its root causes.

Sri Lanka has three main asbestos roofing sheet manufacturing companies and are said to be using precautions to safeguard their employees. However, it is important that the authorities constantly monitor the situation, as these employees can be in the line of direct exposure. Concentration of asbestos fibres in the air, duration of the exposure, frequency of exposure and the size of the asbestos fibres inhaled are some of the factors to which the seriousness of the asbestos related health risks is subject to. Carpenters working on roofs are the other category highly exposed to asbestos related health hazards. The NIOSH says it has given instructions and is prepared to conduct health checks on employees of asbestos manufacturing plants, but says it is too difficult to reach the informal working sector such as individual carpenters working on their own. This informal working group is very hard to monitor.

Many of them are even ignorant of such a danger, and just cut the asbestos, even without covering their noses, exposing themselves to high danger levels, where experts advise using 100% body cover when exposed to asbestos.

However, like e-waste, asbestos debris should also be disposed of with extreme care, points out Head of Hazardous Waste Unit CEA, Sarojinie Jayasekara. The CEA sets guidelines for the waste generated by asbestos manufacturing plants, but many of the household asbestos is being disposed of irresponsibly. According to the guidelines, these have to be buried much deeper in the earth. The 2004 tsunami was a good example, where a large number of houses with asbestos sheets were destroyed and disposed of at normal dumping grounds in Sri Lanka’s coastal belts.

“We cannot ban asbestos in Sri Lanka immediately, until we find a suitable alternative” said Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. The CEA chairman adds that awareness is the key to minimise asbestos related health hazards.

The Rotterdam Convention

The Rotterdam Convention is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibilities in relation to the importation of hazardous chemicals. The convention handles the Prior Informed Consent Procedure (PIC) for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides that have severe effects for health or environmental reasons. The Convention came into operation in 2004 and Sri Lanka ratified the convention in 2006.


Today is World Ozone day: Healing the hole

September 16, 2012

Today – 16th of September is the International Ozone Day. The day has been dedicated to celebrate the special occasion of signing of Montreal protocol which aimed at controlling the gases such as CFC that is harmful for Ozone layer. Montreal protocol is a rare success story where world could act together to achieve a common Environmental Goal and particularly pass a positive message for all those who struggle to sign common treaties to reduce Green House Gases to mitigate Climate Change or agree to protect Earth’s biodiversity.

This article written on 2007 features Sri Lanka’s success in achieving Montreal targets..!!

The fight to protect the Ozone layer: Sri Lanka wins UNEP award

By Malaka Rodrigo

When “Ozone-friendly”, “CFC free” labels started to appear in the early ’90s on products such as refrigerators, to many, it seemed just another marketing strategy, but in fact, these “ozone-friendly” alternatives may save lives. Skin cancer, cataracts and problems in the immune system are some of the effects of exposure to dangerous Ultra Violet (UV) rays that penetrate Ozone Holes in the atmosphere.

Scientists identified the threat caused by the depletion of the Ozone Layer that shields the earth, by gases such as Chloro fluoro carbons (CFCs) in the early ’80s. Knowing the grave consequences, the global community initiated the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985. As the legal instrument for the Vienna Convention, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer came into force in 1987.

Being a Third World country, one might be forgiven for thinking that Sri Lanka would lag behind in achieving such international commitment. But to the contrary, the National Ozone Unit (NOU) of Sri Lanka has driven all parties to achieve the Montreal targets ahead of the allotted time. In recognition of their efforts, the NOU received the award for Best Implementers of the Montreal Protocol last week at a ceremony in Montreal, Canada that celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the Protocol.

The citation on the award given by the UNEP read – “Sri Lanka Ozone Unit known globally for many of its contributions to efforts to address Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) including its effective implementation projects to enable achievements of the Protocol’s reduction requirements, its effective licensing programs and its creative public awareness activities.”

Dr. W.L. Sumathipala, head of the NOU, who just returned from Canada with the award, praised the parties that have been supporting them in the fight to protect the Ozone Layer.

Sri Lanka ratified both the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol on December 15, 1989. The Montreal Protocol has been signed by 192 countries at present. Each country has been given a set of annual targets to reduce the usage of ODS depending upon the base levels and with a deadline of complete elimination by 2010.

The NOU of Sri Lanka was established under the Ministry of Environment in 1994, to implement the Montreal Protocol and related activities. Initially called the Montreal Protocol Unit, it was later named the National Ozone Unit. The 13th summit of Montreal Protocol countries was held in Colombo and Sri Lanka was nominated as the president of the Bureau of the Montreal Protocol countries for 2001 and has been vice president both in 2000 and 2005.

Fulfilling the commitments under the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer by phasing out ODS has been adopted as the primary mission of the NOU since its inception. To initiate activities to maintain and strengthen the institutional framework in protection of the Ozone Layer, with minimum inconvenience to industry/general public are the other objectives of this unit. NOU assists local industrialists and individuals to convert their equipment into CFC-free systems by providing funds as well as technical guidance. The training unit of NOU regularly conducts workshops for technicians and students on methods of modifying existing machinery by using Ozone-friendly gases. Over 2300 technicians have been trained up to now. They also provide guidance in the reusing of the ODS which can reduce the gases being freely released into the atmosphere.

Significant award: Dr. Sumathipala (right) with Marco Gonzalez, Executive Secretary, Ozone Secretariat, UNEP

Sri Lanka imported over 450 tonnes of CFCs in 1995 and this was reduced by 85% in 2006. The NOU hopes to eliminate some of the Ozone Destruction Substances completely from Sri Lanka by 2008, two years prior to the target set by the Montreal Protocol.

Although Sri Lanka is not producing Ozone Depleting Substances within the country, a few industries consume significant amounts of ODS. Air conditioning, the refrigerator service sector, the agricultural sector and quarantine sector are the main industries. CFC, which is the main ODS has been heavily used in the refrigeration and air conditioning sector. There were three refrigeration factories using CFCs in Sri Lanka, but these were converted to non-CFC technology with grants from the Multilateral Fund. At present CFCs are being used only for repairing and servicing of refrigerators, air conditioners etc. NOU encourages recycling of these substances.

ODS is also used in the garment manufacturing industry on a small scale as a solvent, and for dry-cleaning textiles. Bromine compound is another substance that depletes Ozone. Halons which contain these bromine compounds are used in fire extinguishing equipment. No virgin Halon is being imported to the country now; but there is a possibility of the use of already installed systems. Methyl Bromide (CH3Br) is imported as a pre-shipment fumigant and is used as a soil treatment to control soil pests such as nematodes, seeds fungi, bacteria and other parasite plants. In Sri Lanka Methyl Bromide is commonly used in the tea plantations. NOU has collaboratively worked with the Tea Research Institute to introduce alternatives for these, supported by the. UNEP and UNDP. NOU also conducts awareness programmes for students and the general public.

The world community has not yet felt the full impact of ozone depletion. September 16th has been set apart as the International Ozone Day and 2007 was named the International Year for Ozone Protection by the UN to emphasize the importance of the effort. However, countries like Sri Lanka will feel the effects of the changes caused by Ozone Depletion, aggravated by poor health conditions, undeveloped agricultural methods and other economic setbacks unless preventive action is taken. This is where the efforts by the NOU are so vital.

OZONE: What is it?

Ozone (O3) is a naturally occurring gas made of a triple form of oxygen. More than 90% of it is found in the Stratosphere 10 to 50 km above the earth’s surface. This region where Ozone is concentrated in the Stratosphere is commonly known as the Ozone Layer. This ozone layer acts as a protective shield, which filters the harmful ultra violet rays.

Mechanism of Ozone Layer Depletion

In the 1980s, it was discovered that the most commonly used ozone depleting substances (ODS) are Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), commonly used in the refrigeration industry. When CFCs are released to the atmosphere they reach the stratosphere and are split by ultra violet radiation. This process sets highly reactive chlorine atoms free. Bromine atoms were also released in a similar manner from substances like Halon and Methyl Bromide. These chlorine and bromine atoms act as a destroying agent of ozone molecules. Scientists found that, in this way a single chlorine atom can destroy up to 100,000 ozone molecules. Repetition of this process gradually thins out the ozone layer.

Effects of Ozone Layer Depletion

The direct result of the ozone layer depletion will be an increase of the amount of UV radiation that will reach the earth’s surface. These ultra violet rays have a destructive effect on humans, marine life, crops and other living creatures. According to studies, ozone depletion will lead to human skin cancer, cataracts and also affect the capacity of the human immune system resulting in decline in immunity and increase in the occurrence of infectious diseases.

Ultra violet rays have an adverse effect on plant and marine life. Seeds of plants and larvae of sea creatures that are exposed to the sun will be seriously damaged thereby breaking the natural life system and food production. Growth of plants and crops will also be restricted.

Published on sundayTimes on 30.09.2007

High sulfur diesel propels up air pollution

April 15, 2012
Programme from year end to monitor and control vehicle emissions, air pollution to meet WHO targets by 2020 – By Malaka Rodrigo
Air pollution is set to get worse with the use of low quality diesel, warns Air Resource Management (AirMac) Director Anura Jayatilleka. Sulfur in fossil fuel is one of the worst air pollutants, and this is high in the diesel used in Sri Lanka.

The level of sulfur in diesel is 3,000 parts per million (ppm) at present. This was as high as 8,000 ppm in 2000, but fuel quality standards managed to reduce this level to 5,000 ppm by 2003, and to 3,000 ppm by 2004. But this has to be further reduced to 500 ppm, recommends Mr. Jayathilake.

Most of the diesel used in Sri Lanka has been refined at the refinery in Sapugaskanda, but there are problems in expanding and upgrading the facilities there, in order to further refine the diesel. The AirMac Director also said that they are working closely with the Finance Ministry to find a solution to further upgrade the quality of the diesel.

If we do not implement high fuel standards, the impact on health and the environment will be serious in the long run, warn experts. Results of a study by Prof. O.A. Illeperuma, released at a workshop organized by the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), together with TVE Asia Pacific, on Challenges of Clean Air Quality, revealed that excessive breathing of polluted air can cause wheezing, asthma, headaches or nausea. Prof. Illeperuma said his survey indicates that 45% of those seeking outpatient care in two leading hospitals is for the treatment of the respiratory diseases. Pneumonia and influenza are ranked as the second leading cause of hospitalizations in Sri Lanka over the past five years, and is the second leading cause of death among children aged 5 – 14 years.

CEA chief Charitha Herath: Blue Sky 2020 will be a challenging task

Prof. Illeperuma’s study also revealed that air pollution in rural areas is only one-fifth of that in urban areas, with vehicle emissions being most responsible for air pollution. This clearly indicates that to address air pollution, we need to address vehicle emissions.

AirMac was set up to get all stakeholders to maintain air quality, and has been active in setting up many positive steps towards this end. The vehicle emission test (VET) programme is one such endeavour launched with good intentions, but the programme has received many complaints, in that vehicles with serious emission issues are also given the green light. Mr. Jayatilleka says they are also looking at streamlining the VET programme at the moment, by checking VET certified vehicles with high smoke emission against their VET database. In case of a discrepancy, the vehicles will be summoned to the Department of Motor Traffic for further testing.

Meanwhile, the Central Environment Authority (CEA), in an attempt to manage the ambient air quality of the country, has designed a project titled ‘Blue Sky 2020’, to be launched at the end of this year. Its aims is to bring the country towards World Health Organization’s interim targets by 2020, said CEA Chairman Charitha Herath. Air pollution caused by vehicle emissions is expected double by 2020, and hence, “Blue Sky2020” will be a challenging task, said Mr Herath.

Among vehicles, three-wheelers and motorcycles are the worst air polluters, with vehicle emissions causing 65% of urban air pollution. The CEA states that about 500,000 new vehicles are registered each year. According to the present trend, a 10% annual increase in vehicles is forecast, as per government estimates.

Though the situation is getting worse, the people are not aware of the harmful levels of air pollution around them, and the consequent danger they are exposed to. Mr Herath said that air pollution hot spots will be identified by BlueSky2020 and an air quality monitoring network established, covering major cities with Air Quality Display Boards, informing the public of the level of pollution.

The CEA also aims at studying air pollutant dispersion pattern in Sri Lanka, according to seasonal weather conditions of the country, as an exercise of BlueSky2020. Fuel economy standards should be developed to minimize air pollution by vehicle emission. Based on the standards, recommendations, regulations and fiscal policies, vehicle imports and vehicle fleet management will be formulated, and guidelines for mass transport network formulated for the period 2016 -2020.

BlyeSky2020 will also monitor air quality standards within the industrial sector, and ensure it is properly maintained.

Published on SundayTimes on 15.04.2012