Gasping for Air: Here’s How Major Pakistani Cities Rank for Air Pollution

It would be no surprise to anyone living in Pakistan that air pollution is a serious problem here. In what’s becoming a yearly ritual, Lahore faced very heavy smog that endangered a lot of lives and also caused health problems across Punjab.

Pakistan is not alone in facing this issue. An air quality model by the World Health Organization (WHO) confirms that 92% of the world’s population lives in places where air quality levels are worse than those set by WHO. Globally, over 3 million deaths a year are caused by exposure to outdoor air pollution. In 2012, 11.6% of all global deaths (6.5 million) were linked with air pollution.

Situation in Pakistan

In a report released last year by WHO, Pakistan was the 4th most polluted country in the world. According to the BreathLife campaign, there are nearly 59,241 deaths every year due to air pollution, out of which 13,683 are children. The top illness is “Ischemic heart disease” caused by air pollution.

An interactive map by the WHO shows that the levels of pollution all over Pakistan are dangerously high with just a few exceptions.

Let’s take a closer look at the 5 major cities of Pakistan and see what their pollution levels are on paper.

1. Karachi

Karachi, having an estimated population of between 15 and 23.5 million, is Pakistan’s largest city. It also holds a big share of Pakistan’s industry. So it would be pretty obvious that it has the highest level of air pollution in the country, right? Actually no. Though, it is still by no means in the safe zone. The air pollution comes at 88 µg/m3. It is, unfortunately, 8.8 times above the WHO safe level.

2. Lahore

From the above data, it is pretty clear where we stand. Lahore has seen some of the worst air pollution issues. Just a little over 3 months ago, Lahore was engulfed in a very dangerous smog. The safe level set by WHO for air pollution is 10 µg/m3 of PM2.5 particles. Lahore has an annual average of 68 µg/m3. That is a 6.8 times the WHO safe level.

Apart from this data, another source also helped put things into perspective. Having an annual average of 68 µg/m3, it means that Lahore ranks a 155 (Unhealthy) on the Air Quality Index. And that is only just an average. Peak numbers are far higher.

During the smog situation a few months ago, according to the the Air Quality Index, Lahore ranked at 300+ (Hazardous) levels. Much of it is due to the mismanaged construction projects taken up in the city and the lack of plantations.

Thousands of trees have been cut and air pollution is only increasing in the city.

3. Rawalpindi

Being next to Islamabad, you might expect almost the same levels of air pollution as that of the federal capital. However, with lesser greenery and plantations and an abundance of traffic and public transport, the air pollution in Rawalpindi comes in at 107 µg/m3, which is 10.7x the WHO safe level.

4. Islamabad

The federal capital, with its greenery and trees, might be expected to have a relatively lower level of air pollution compared to other major cities. Alas, that’s not the case. It is definitely the lowest in the country (on record), but that is not essentially something to be proud of.

Pollution level in Islamabad comes at 66 µg/m3. That is 6.6 times the WHO safe level. It is hard to believe that Islamabad has air pollution levels close to Lahore (6.8x).

5۔ Peshawar.


Peshawar has the highest air pollution in Pakistan. Pretty unexpected for some people but the numbers don’t lie. The level of air pollution in Peshawar comes in at 111 µg/m3, which is 11.1 times the safe level set by WHO.

The Worrisome Effects of Air Pollution On Us

Air pollution has an impact on all of us. According to the WHO, only 1 in 10 people breathe safe and clean air. In order to combat such a problem, we must first be able to understand the scope and impact of air pollution.

56% of the cities and towns being monitored have an average air pollution level 3.5-times more than what is set by WHO. 87% of the deaths from air pollution also happen in most low and middle income countries.

Air pollution is causing Cancer, heart attacks, asthma and more in Pakistan

Between, 2008 and 2013, pollution levels around the globe increased by 8%, higher than any other time period in the history of the world.

Health wise, air pollution results in dirty particles entering into our lungs, bloodstream and bodies. Strokes, chronic respiratory disease and lung cancer are then caused by these particles. If you ever wondered what the cause of more heart attacks and weaker bodies was, it is very much related to air pollution. Asthma, a common issue in Pakistan, is also caused by none other than air pollution.

What Can We Do About It?

You’ll be in your homes/offices right now cursing the government that they don’t do enough, and it’s true, maybe they don’t and they won’t.

But why not start with yourself? Why not start as an individual, from your home or even as a community? Communities play a huge role in shifting how we contribute to air pollution at the individual level. By changing and shifting practices, we can dramatically reduce the pollution over time.

Here’s how you can bring about a change in your environment for the better:

1. Manage Waste

Recycle grocery bags and properly dispose off the trash. Trash should never be burnt because it contributes directly to air pollution and results in toxic particles in the air.

2. Cook Clean

The burning of coal and wood is still very common and contribute a lot towards air pollution. It should be minimized by using more efficient heating systems and stoves.

3. Car Pooling

Sure, care pooling is not such a widely known concept and barely anyone ever uses it. It is however a very earth friendly option to consider. Walk or use a bike to get to a closer destination. It is healthy, both for you and the environment.

There are other various habits that could be taken up to reduce the air pollution. Such as planting trees and other plants, reducing the use of old cars that emit smoke etc. Taking some of these simple steps can help boosts the air quality in our home and cities and also improve our health.

Note: The data that was indicated by the Breathe2030 tool was gathered in 2008-2011 by the WHO, and it hasn’t been updated since then because Pakistan has stopped sharing air pollution data. By now, the pollution levels have certainly increased several times (as indicated in the case of Lahore). Organizations are assuming that data is hidden by the government to avoid the issue from being raised. The UN and WHO have been making efforts based on the indicative numbers (higher than xyz, more than abc) as the EPA avoids giving out the exact readings.

  • I am in Beijing these days, and here when Air pollution PM2.5 is around 100, it is considered a good day :D, on worst days it can reach up to 800

  • Do we know what Air pollution PM2.5 for Lahore these days?? and what it might be if it does not rain for next two months??? Scary thoughts..

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