Scientists Devise New Pollution Index

Scale Will Assess Impact of Development in Asia, Beyond

When Fiona E.F. Murray visited Manila last year, she says she saw one of the worst examples of pollution she had ever encountered.

"There is a place in Manila called Smoking Mountain, and it's basically a mountain formed of pure garbage," says Murray, a graduate student in Harvard's environmental engineering department.

According to Murray, the site used to be a huge landfill, but so much garbage was dumped into the hole that it quickly filled up.

"The reason why it's called Smoking Mountain is because the bugs which biodegrade the waste produce an enormous amount of methane gas which literally fumes from the site," Murray says.

Most amazing, she says, is that families actually live on top of the mountain. "They scavenge through the incoming garbage in the hopes of finding usable items."

Environmental disaster sites like Smoking Mountain show how serious the pollution problem has become in some areas of Asia, but right now, no universal quantitative scale exists to compare pollution levels among different countries.

Harvard researchers, led by McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering Peter P. Rogers, have begun a two-year project to tackle that problem. they plan to design a numerical environmental index which would allow those who invest in developing Asian countries to better assess the environmental impact of their loans.

The index would help investors foster economic growth in countries while increasing the environmental standards in those communities.

"We're very excited about this project," Murray says. "We have really been given a lot of responsibility with this. We have the chance now to shape the development of these countries in an environmentally sound way."

Harvard researchers will base their environmental quality index on data obtained through collaboration with six countries in Asia: China, Nepal, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Marshall Islands.

The Asian Development Bank, one of the sponsors of the project, selected these six countries because they best represent the geographic and population diversity of all developing countries in Asia, says C.C. Yu, a postdoctoral fellow in the department.

The push for rapid industrialization in many of these developing Asian countries has come at the expense of environmental and health concerns, says project collaborator Joseph J. Harrington, McKay professor of environmental engineering. During a recent tour of China and the Philippines, Harrington says he was able to observe first hand the "incredible air and water pollution problems of these countries."

For example, Murray says electric power plants in China have multiple negative effects on the surrounding community, including problems with acid rain, dust and carbon dioxide emission.

"The coal-burning power plants in China simply do not have the economic resources to control the enormous amount of dust that they spew into the atmosphere," Murray says. "Many of the children in nearby houses experience an increased rate of respiratory problems."

But Murray also says that without electricity from those polluting plants, more families would have to burn coal in their homes for heat, which is also hazardous to one's health.

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