Srinagar, Oct 25: With the onset of the autumn season in the Kashmir Valley, people are busy preparing for the impending winter chill. Traditionally, they gather tree branches and leaves, which they burn to produce charcoal for keeping warm during the freezing winter months.
However, this age-old practice comes with an environmental cost as the entire valley is soon enveloped in a toxic haze due to the burning of tree branches and leaves. This not only pollutes the air but also poses significant health risks to the people of the region.
Environmentalists, said that the smoke generated by the simultaneous leaf fires can lead to various health issues. While it may irritate the eyes, nose and throat of healthy adults, it can be especially harmful to vulnerable populations such as small children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma or heart diseases, they said.
They explained that the visible smoke from these fires primarily comprises tiny particles capable of penetrating deep into lung tissues. This can result in symptoms like coughing, wheezing, chest pain, and shortness of breath, which may not surface until several days after exposure.
Dr Mohammad Ismail, a chest specialist from Anantnag, highlighted the dangers posed by leaf smoke. He explained: “Apart from its irritant properties, leaf smoke contains hazardous chemicals like carbon monoxide and Benzo(a)pyrene. Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin, reducing the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and lungs, which can be especially perilous for children, smokers, the elderly, and individuals with chronic heart or lung diseases.”
Benzo(a)pyrene, another harmful component, is known to cause cancer in animals and is believed to be a significant contributor to lung cancer, similar to the effects of cigarette smoke and coal tar, Dr Ismail added.
Shabir Ahmed, a biology lecturer in Pulwama, stressed the importance of educating the public about the adverse effects of burning leaves and branches. He said burning a large number of leaves poses a significant environmental threat, and the government must intervene to curb this practice.
Waqar Ahmed, an orchardist from Pulwama, said they are compelled to burn tree branches and leaves due to a lack of viable alternatives. “It is our necessity to generate charcoal for firepots during harsh winter, as there is often unscheduled electricity supply disruption for months,” he said.
Doctors said there is an increase in respiratory problems, mostly among the elderly and children, during this season. They attributed it partly to the burning of leaves.
Dr Tariq Rasool, a scientist from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agriculture Sciences and Technology (SKAUST), urged people not to burn leaves, citing the pollution it causes and its violation of Supreme Court rules. He proposed alternative methods, such as composting the leaves to create fertilizers.
“People must decompose these leaves in composite pits. They can spray urea on leaves which helps in speedy decomposition,” Dr Tariq said.