Economic Development versus Atmospheric Changes: Air pollution becoming a greatest threat in the heart of Sri Lanka – An analysis


The atmosphere is a common resource which is enjoyed by all living organs.  The eco-system maintains the atmospheric system and adjusts spontaneously enabling the organs to have better environment and air quality.  But the great influence of human being in changing eco-system reflects negatively in terms of health and wellbeing of human and the rest of all living and non living organs.  Air pollution is one those and it could be described as an undesirable change in the physical, chemical or biological characteristics of air.  When the system is affected it has an adverse effect on all organs.

 Both developed and developing countries are experiencing both indoors and outdoors air pollution and its consequences.  Sri Lanka is not exceptional among those and air pollution is an increasing environmental problem in Sri Lanka and especially in Colombo city and other metropolitan areas.  The development of science, technologies, rapid industrialization and economic initiatives are the main contributory factors for air pollution.  The transport sector alone contributes about 65% of the air pollution in Colombo city.  In addition, highly polluting industries such as thermal power plants and other factory emissions with in the Colombo metropolitan area aggravate the existing situations by contributing by 33%.  While the rest is contributed by open burning of garbage and other things. 

 Approximately 2.4 million vehicles have been registered under the Department of Motor Traffic, Sri Lanka and only 1.5 millions of these vehicles are under operation.  Sixty percent of them are operated in Colombo city.  It comprises of 27 % of diesel, 14 % of 4 wheelers petrol, 10% of 3wheelers petrol and 49% of motorcycles.  In average estimated each vehicle emits 14,730 million carbon particles per square meter to the environment each year and it is a serious situation.  Soon after the war end, the purchasing tendency of new vehicles is very high not only in Colombo city but also in other places.  Therefore growing number of vehicles are expected to pollute more and aggravate the existing situation.

 Dust /soot are another source of air pollutant to a certain extent in Sri Lanka and this is mainly caused due to poor maintenance of roads.  Hourly PM measurements indicated that the highest dust exposure occurs at 8.00 a.m. local time in the urban area.

 Air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, is a major environmental health problem and affects people in many ways.  Although air pollutants are many, the most important are particle pollution often referred to as particulate matter (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and lead (Pb).  They are found in the ambient air and known as “criteria pollutants”. 

 Exposure to air pollutants leads to a variety of health problems depending on the type of pollutant, amount of the pollutant exposed to, duration and frequency of exposure, and associated toxicity of the specific pollutant.  These exposures are associated with a broad range of acute and chronic health effects varying from sub-clinical effects to premature mortality. 

 The air pollutants, sources and its health effects are tabulated

Pollutant Source Health effect
Carbon monoxide -Product of incompleteCombustion of organicmatter Symptoms of Co (Carbon monoxide) poisoning are:-Dizziness, Headache, General fatigue.-Blocks the uptake of Oxygen by blood by forming carboxyhaemoglobin. This affects respiration and function of brain and heart.
Sulphur oxides -Burning of fossil fuels-Automobile exhaustIndustrial process – Irritation of the mucous membrane- Aggravate existing conditions especially bronchitis- Causes wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing
 Nitrogen oxides Automobile exhaustIndustrial furnaces – Irritates mucous lining of nose and throat, coughing, choking, headache, lung inflammation such as bronchitis or pneumonia
Suspended particulate matter (PM) -Automobile exhaust fumes.-Industry – smoke,mining and construction-Agricultural activities-Indoor cooking usingfirewood-Burning of organic matter –  Aggravates heart and lung Conditions- Irritates nose, throat- Particles less than five microns can pass throughthe lungs causing inflammation and scar toLung tissue
Heavy Metals – Pb Motor vehicle exhaustIndustry -. Accumulate in bones where it replaces Calcium- Lead intoxication will lead to brain damage- Low level of chronic exposure to Pb leads topermanent retardation inchildren

Though air pollutants affect all human beings, the age groups of 0-14 years old and 50 and up are more prone to health hazards and undergo serious chronic health problems. The population in Colombo city is 680,000 and out of them 200,000 are school children.  Many of schools are situated along busy main roads and schools children are more vulnerable and exposed to high level of pollutants.  Air pollutant such as NOx, SOx and TSP levels are significantly higher in the premises of the urban schools as compared to as remote schools.  Therefore prevalence of respiratory symptom such as cough, phlegm, wheezing among school children attending in the cit limit is higher that that of children attending a school in a rural area. 

 This hazardous and unhealthy environment not only affects Colombo city but also all main economical capitals/cities such as Galle, Kandy etc.  Hospital statistics at Gall district illustrate as follows:

Prevalence of Asthama

District Year 2008 Year 2009
Galle 21.90% 28.70%
Village Chandgarh 12.50% 10.40%

The table explicitly illustrates that the air pollutant has grater impact among children i.e., 21.9 % and 28.7 % respectively in 2008 and 2009 with in the city limit Gall.  Whereas it is low, i.e., 10.4% and 12.5% respectively in 2008 and 2009 in the rural area – Chandgrah of the same district.  It is also to be noted that the prevalence of asthma increase to higher level compared to the previous. 

 In another instance, the statistics of the government hospital for children –‘Lady Ridgeway Hospital (LRH)’ in the Colombo city illustrate that 30, 932 children received nebulizer therapy in the emergency treatment unit (the median daily attendance was 85) during 12 month period beginning in July 1998.  Further binomial test indicate that the highest number of episodes of nebulization occurred on the most polluted day with respect to SO₂ and NO₂. 

 Colombo Fort Monitoring Station used the software which was prepared by WHO to assess the air pollutants and the assessment findings state that occurrence of bronchitis, emphysema and other chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases had strong association with PM level.  Further it illustrates that 20% of asthma patients who got treatment at LRH, in Colombo in 2005 should have been exposed PM10. 

 Another assessment carried out among bus drivers, trishaw drivers, shop keepers and outdoor vendors to study respiratory condition through a questionnaire indicates that the highest prevalence of respiratory system was reported among bus drivers. 

 Another trend according to the health record of Sri Lanka states that since 1995 the diseases of the respiratory system have been ranged as the second leading causes of hospitalization.  The respiratory diseases were with in the first seven leading causes of death in all age groups except 15-24 and 25-49 years.  The statistics of hospitalization and hospital death from 1995-2001 shows that Asthma has become a major respiratory diseases. 

 The rapidly increasing vehicle population and fuel consumption particularly diesel, high proportion of old vehicles and poor vehicle maintenance; absence of clean fuel, and the high rate of urbanization are contributing to dangerous pollution levels in Sri Lanka.


The facts and figures clearly illustrate the seriousness of air pollutants in Colombo city, and other major cities and its negative impact on the human’s health.  It leads to chronic and deadly diseases.  Therefore it is the right time to take immediate action to control air pollutants through all possible means. 

 While the government of Sri Lanka takes a lead to mitigate these problems through policy reforms and adoptions and in ensures the policies to be practised, the private and public sectors could also actively be engaged in these initiatives.  We know that there were several policies were put forward to maintain air quality by the successive governments in the past, due to various constrains and priorities, they were not achieved fully or succeeded. 

 Some possible interventions for actions:

  1. Minimize numbers of vehicle usage with in the cities and core areas.  We do observe that many of private vehicles travel with only one person.  In addition to convenience, it is also believed in Sri Lanka that travelling in a personal vehicle could bring social status.  These attitudes should be changed.   
  2.  The public transport mechanism should be improved enabling the public to rely on the services.  It is important to increase the number of train and bus services.
  3.  Through CO₂ emission control practices are under effect, we could observe there are many more vehicles that supposed to be banned/ ceased are not happening.  The policy should be strictly practiced. 
  4.  The government as well as private sources should seek possible hydropower techniques for electricity and energy rather on thermal power plants. 
  5.  Road infrastructures should be improved.  While it reduces traffic congestions, eventually the fuel consumption and it will also reduce dust problems. 
  6.  On the other hand public should be taught about the importance of clean air and the mitigation methods at household and community level to minimize air pollutant.  While they are encouraged to plant trees, action should be taken to stop open burning.  

 As a Sri Lankan we all have the obligations to think about our younger and future generations and their safety and health.  They have rights to breathe clean and healthy air.  So we all have to join together for actions.



2 Responses to “Economic Development versus Atmospheric Changes: Air pollution becoming a greatest threat in the heart of Sri Lanka – An analysis”

  1. Air Pollution Dust Control Says:

    Air Pollution Dust Control…

    […]Economic Development versus Atmospheric Changes: Air pollution becoming a greatest threat in the heart of Sri Lanka – An analysis « Sustainability and the commons[…]…

  2. ambien Says:


    […]Economic Development versus Atmospheric Changes: Air pollution becoming a greatest threat in the heart of Sri Lanka – An analysis « Sustainability and the commons[…]…

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