Can’t Mask the Truth
The season of rejuvenation is well underway, but here in Korea, it is also the season of health warnings and daily masks. Rather than getting out to breathe the fresh air and witness the oncoming of spring, advice to keep outdoor activities to a minimum dominates citizens’ consciousness. The frequency and concentration of fine dust is worsening year after year, but naturally everyone must keep on breathing despite the pollutants: the negative impacts of particulate matter (PM) on public health are undeniable.
The fine dust pollution in the air comes from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and factories, as well as the internal combustion engines of petrol and diesel vehicles. It can also be produced in the atmosphere via chain reactions involving other gaseous pollutants such as nitrogen oxides. The dust is categorized according to size — PM10 particles are smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter, and the threshold of ultra-fine PM2.5 is a quarter of this size, less than one seventh of a human hair. Contrary to the widespread belief that South Korea’s pollution woes can be blamed for the most part on the rapidly industrializing east coast of China, a report last year conducted by the Korean National Institute of Environmental Research in collaboration with NASA found that over 50% of the airborne pollutants in this country are domestically produced, while only about 34% and 9% originate in China and North Korea respectively.
In the spring, poor air quality is exacerbated by the combination of the fine pollutants with yellow dust storms from the Gobi Desert blowing over the Yellow Sea, which gains its name from dust settling on the water surface. Yellow dust clouds have worsened in recent years with increasing desertification in China, which allows more fine soil and sand particles to be picked up by strong winds. The dust composition is primarily of silicon, aluminium, and calcium, as well as various toxic substances. While it is thought that heavier elements such as mercury may settle out of the dust as they travel long distances, the fine particulates still cause significant health issues.
A 2018 Environmental Performance Index survey by Yale University ranked South Korea poorly at rank 174 out of 180 countries for PM2.5 exposure. Immediate, common symptomatic effects include sore throats and eyes and sinusitis, due to the irritation caused by particulates directly and compounded by the changing season weakening the immune system. For vulnerable individuals and those with respiratory issues, dust storms can trigger a worsening in asthmatic symptoms. Researchers at Korea University found that exposure to above average PM10 levels correlated with a 27% increase in hospitalized asthma patients. In addition to respiratory ailments, inhaling fine dust particles also causes increased occurrence of hypertension and a higher risk of sudden cardiac arrest, those with pre-existing conditions being most at risk. According to a study at Seoul National University, a 10 μm/m3 increase in dust concentration resulted in a 4.4% hike in instances of high blood pressure, caused by the fine particles entering the bloodstream after absorption in the lungs. Studies have demonstrated a measurable effect of dust on mental health as well. People with higher exposure to fine dust are more likely to experience high anxiety and depression. On days with severe dust concentration, according to data analyzed by Samsung Medical Center from 2010 to 2016, there was a 10% increase in suicide attempts.
The long-term health ramifications of extended exposure to fine dust are not yet fully understood — the worsening pollution has only reached such levels within the last decade. Particulate matter has been classed as a group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization, meaning there is significant evidence of its direct causality with cancer. A recent study on the success rate of IVF pregnancies found that the chance of successful fertilization is reduced by 10% when fine dust levels are 50% higher than average. The researchers at CHA Gangnam Fertility Center compared the effects as similar to those from secondhand smoke, with toxic substances and oxidative stress damaging embryo DNA.
When faced with such a plethora of health risks, the public is naturally concerned for its wellbeing. The most visible protective tactic is the use of disposable dust masks. Available in many types and filter grades, these are designed for one day’s use only. To reuse them is to inhale the previous day’s dust. Many may be sceptical of the effectiveness of wearing a mask, and while the percentage of dust filtered can depend on the closeness of the fit, correctly used masks marked with Korea Filter (KF) approval have been shown to reliably filter out 80%, 94%, and 99% of PM (KF80, KF94, and KF99 respectively). Aside from outdoor mask use, methods to reduce pollutant inhalation include regularly cleaning indoor surfaces, sealing the edges of windows, and using air purifiers. Other advice for staying healthy from the Ministry of Environment is increased water intake to aid the bodily expulsion of particles and consumption of more fruits and vegetables to bolster the immune system. There are several websites and apps providing pollution level data, such as Air Korea’s website www.airkorea.or.kr. Taking appropriate measures for the day’s particulate concentration is the best option available for those living under hazy skies.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that with no change in environmental policy or efforts to tackle air pollution generated in Korea, the death rate directly attributable to fine dust will be over 1,100 per million population by 2060. A mask is only effective for one day, but the dust storms could worsen for years to come; maintenance of health cannot only be the responsibility of each citizen but also be the duty of the government.
Fighting for Our Air
Air pollution has been a source of concern for the modern world since the Industrial Revolution and rise of urbanization. The growth of factories, power plants, construction projects, and other industrial activities has pushed the boundaries of breathable air. Every major city on Earth has pursued some form of anti-pollution initiative over the last decade, but with many different types of pollutants to identify and combat, the task has proven to be slow and difficult. Additionally, the transient nature of politics has interfered with the efficiency of legislative action.
In Europe, the European Commission (EC) laid out a comprehensive plan, the Clean Air Policy Package, in 2013 to further reduce air pollution by doubling down on enforcing existing legislation, educating citizens on the topic to create consciously-aware consumers, and drafting more policies that cut down on diesel cars, subsidize electric power, and reduce industrial emissions. The EC also actively uses its given power to hold countries that do not meet the set standards of air pollution accountable by forcing the payment of significant fines.
In America, the Clean Air Act, one of the most comprehensive and strict anti-air pollution policies in the world, has seen the reduction of air pollution across the nation in the past, but still fell short of the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also, with the new administration and its anti-environment stance, the US has not seen any recent meaningful progress on this issue. In China, the government’s partial ban on coal-power plant usage has dramatically improved air quality in late 2017. However, this unilateral cap on coal emissions was only possible due to China’s single-party system and state-ownership of most coal power plants.
Korea has recently been in the headlines for a sudden and severe worsening of air quality in some of its key cities. Seoul now ranks among the top cities in the world with extremely bad air pollution. While debate on who is to blame for this blanket of toxic particulates ensues, the fact is that poor policymaking in the past has led to this moment. Until 2017, Korea was alone in the developed world in increasing the number of coal power plants, with plans to build 20 more by 2021. Even with the planned shutdown of 10 older plants, the dependence on coal is dangerously high and the temporary substitution of oil fuel instead of coal to meet the power demand will exacerbate the problem. Combined with the current administration’s efforts to reduce nuclear power plants, the efficacy of the nation’s air pollution policies could be in question.
Nonetheless, in 2018, President Moon Jae-in announced a five-year long, 7.2 trillion KRW plan to shut down old coal power plants, reduce diesel vehicles, and cap polluting emissions from industrial plants, construction sites, and ships. By 2022, the government plans to reduce domestic levels of PM2.5 by 30% and a budget has already been allocated by the previous administration to subsidize electric cars. According to the Ministry of Environment, from 2019, the plan will cut down emissions of nitrogen oxides, a major contributing factor to fine dust, by monitoring and capping the outputs of large industrial facilities.
On a smaller, short-term, and local scale, the Seoul Metropolitan and Gyeonggi Province Governments have initiated anti-pollution policies of their own, with hits and misses along the way. There were even-odd car campaigns, where only cars with even or odd-number plates were allowed on the roads on alternating days, temporary closure of parking lots at public institutions, and suspension of state-run waste incineration plants. Unfortunately, these measures were all temporary and did very little to curb pollution. According to government data, these emergency enforcements reduced fine dust by only 1 to 2.4%. On the other hand, Gyeonggi’s temporary policy of distributing free masks on all public buses was a success, with citizens responding positively to the plan and the government promising to repeat the measure during times of heightened air pollution. Seoul also tightened its ban on outdoor activities by revising the law to prohibit the city’s elementary, middle, and high schools from conducting any outdoor classes whenever PM2.5 registers at 76 μm/m3 or more for two hours or longer. The city also advised schools to reduce class hours or cancel classes during days when PM10 records 180 μm/m3 or more.
From observing the efforts made by countries that developed earlier than Korea, it can find certain major policies that will significantly decrease its air pollution. Nuclear energy technology should be a priority, coal power plants should be a thing of the past, electric vehicles (and all the R&D involved) should get the subsidies they deserve, and factories and other industrial compounds should employ cleaner technology and be subject to more stringent limits. But most importantly, politics should never get in the way of meaningful legislation and enforcement.
Compiled by Ada Carpenter and Yehhyun Jo