Given the widespread shortages of gas and electricity and the breakdown in law and order in our society, “dharnas” or protests have now become a way of life in towns and cities across Pakistan, as people demand better governance. Often traffic is blocked, public property is destroyed and tires are burnt during many of these protests. Yesterday, I attended a different type of dharna held in Islamabad, to protest the brutal killings of the Hazara community in Quetta. I was relieved to see people sitting quietly on the road, lighting candles and listening to the speakers. These peaceful protests erupted all over the country from Quetta to Karachi and from Lahore to Islamabad, uniting the country in the shared grief of the gentle Hazara community.

At the protest in Islamabad, there were dozens of people young and old, including children and women. The sit-in on an otherwise busy road had been well organised by members of the civil society of Islamabad and the highly educated Hazara youth living in the city. Blankets and food were also provided by the organisers, while the road in F-6, behind the Supermarket was blocked off by a couple of parked vehicles. There was not a single burning tire in sight.

I wish other protestors would realise that the burning of tires releases a toxic soup of pollutants into the air, which are extremely harmful both for the protestors and those living in the area. Hundreds of different toxic pollutants are created by burning tires, including a large number of small particles that settle deep into the lungs. Children, fetuses, nursing babies, the elderly, asthmatics and immune suppressed individuals are all much more vulnerable to these pollutants. The small particulates released by burning tires worsen asthma.

Tires are not designed to be burned and contain hazardous ingredients, which are suspected human carcinogens. In fact, the burning of tires releases Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). These are toxic substances composed of organic (carbon-based) chemical compounds and mixtures. POPs include industrial chemicals like PCBs and pesticides like DDT and are primarily products or by-products from industrial processes, chemical manufacturing and resulting wastes. The existence of POPs is relatively recent, dating to industrial production after the 2nd World War.

They are long-living chemicals that build up in the food chain and slowly poison animals and humans. POPs tend to accumulate and magnify in the fatty tissues of living beings. They are also semi-volatile, which means that they can stay on the ground for a number of years and then be transported hundreds of miles away and be deposited in another place until they eventually end up in animals and humans.

They are found in leaded gasoline and in many pesticides, disinfectants, preservatives, plastics and medical waste. They are directly linked to the spread of cancer in humans. POPs are clearly dangerous to human health and 12 of the most persistent, bio-accumulative chemicals have been banned under the UN’s Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The POPs convention is phasing out and eliminating the production and use of the dirty dozen chemicals, as they are called, and new ones are also being added to the list. The 12 targeted POPs include eight pesticides, two types of industrial chemicals (including polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs), and two chemical families of unintended by-products of manufacturing (dioxins and furans). In order to reduce emissions of dioxins and furans from the burning of tires in garbage dumps, many countries are promoting the environmental-friendly reuse of old tires.

Many of our local industries in Pakistan such as pulp and paper manufacturing, cement kilns, dyeing and agrochemical and petrochemical industries, tanneries, zinc and aluminium and copper production industries and waste burning projects also end up producing POPs. Banned POPs pesticides like DDT (once used extensively to spray mosquito infected areas) are also sold illegally in Pakistan and their residues end up in the food we eat.

There is in fact, an urgent need to analyse POPs in developing countries like Pakistan, monitor them and come up with alternative chemicals and technologies. There should be POPs monitoring facilities in every province. These can also act as information centers for alternative chemicals and technologies that are cleaner and safer. The private sector must be involved for the elimination of POPs from our environment. All the various stakeholders need to become aware of the perils of POPs in order for us to phase out the use of these dangerous chemicals.

Once POPs are ingested by humans, they bio-accumulate in our bodies – we can never get rid of them! So as we age, our chances of getting cancer increase. Scary thought and remember it the next time you attend a protest where tires are being burnt. And do keep in mind that the peace loving and courageous Hazara community managed to get rid of an entire provincial government without breaking any public property or setting fire to even a single tire.

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