Are Pinoys breathing wildfire-quality air?

Breathing is fundamental for human survival, but because it comes so naturally, it’s easy to take air for granted. California’s recent wildfires brought my attention to air quality. I wrote this article from my home in Berkeley while on “house detention”—we were advised to stay indoors with all windows closed and to avoid outdoor activities. The air quality in the Bay Area and Northern California deteriorated to unhealthy/hazardous levels that it prompted UC Berkeley (my school) to cancel the much-awaited Stanford vs UC Berkeley football game and suspend classes for the rest of the week until after Thanksgiving.  Based on air-quality advisories, the “hazardous” air quality in Berkeley City and the Bay Area reached 200+ Ambient Particulate Matter (APM). 

While wildfires are not a serious threat to the Philippines, air pollution is a year-round perennial problem in the country. A 2018 World Health Organization (WHO) Report found that the Philippines ranked third in the world as having the most number of deaths due to air pollution (after China and Mongolia). One in four deaths in the Philippines is attributed to air pollution. When the size of particulate matter in the air is 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) and below, it penetrates into a person’s respiratory and cardiovascular system leading to serious health problems such as pulmonary disease, lung cancer, pneumonia, heart disease, and stroke.

To put things in perspective, the safe level for PM2.5 is 50 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) of air.  Data from air-monitoring stations in 2017 showed alarming figures for air quality in several parts of Metro Manila such as Quezon City (369 μg/nm), Taft Avenue, Manila (448 μg/nm), Paranaque (433 μg/nm) and Valenzuela (285 μg/nm).  These values ranged from 500 to 900 percent beyond the recommended safe level.

UNICEF’s Air Pollution Report says that outdoor air pollution is most common in low-income, urban areas and is caused by vehicle emissions, heavy use of fossil fuels, dust, and burning of waste. In the Philippines, air pollution is a problem that cuts across demographics, affecting rich and poor people alike. “Air pollution affects each and every one of us. We need stronger coordination and wider collaboration so we can once and for all solve our air pollution problem,” said Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu.

The Philippines’ Clean Air Act of 1999 (Republic Act No. 8749) is almost two decades old, yet enforcement seems to be an issue as the quality of air in the Philippines continues to deteriorate. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) says it is working with the Department of Health and WHO to decrease the environmental health risk of air pollution by improving the linkage of air quality and health monitoring, reviewing the air quality index, and strengthening the health-impact assessment for projects and activities that may cause air pollution.  The DENR’s Air Quality Management Bureau and the Land Transportation Office (LTO) are working together to track and apprehend smoke belchers.  Smoke belchers are subject to fines, license suspensions or franchise cancellations. 

Nonetheless, the continued increase in the number of vehicles in the Philippines may pose challenges to maintaining healthy levels of air quality. Carbon monoxide, a type of pollutant, is produced from the exhaust of motor engines or combustion of carbon-containing fuels, such as gasoline. One of the largest sources of carbon monoxide in the Philippines is vehicle emissions.  The emissions problem in the Philippines is compounded by old, fuel-efficient vehicles that continue to ply the streets.  A 2003 Air Pollution Study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) also found that a large fraction of Metro Manila’s vehicle emission sources includes motorcycles burning inefficient two-stroke engines.

The ADB Study’s recommendations included a pilot program for retrofitting particulate traps on diesel vehicles.  Solving the Philippines’ air pollution problems would require a host of solutions—jeepney modernization, mandatory phase-out of old/fuel-inefficient vehicles, incentives for hybrid vehicles, construction of mass-transit systems, strict enforcement of the Clean Air Act, and other regulatory measures related to non-vehicle sources of air pollution. 

Undoubtedly, these solutions take time to implement. While the Philippines tries to go down the global ranking of having the third-highest deaths caused by air pollution, it should take a precautionary approach to protect the health of Filipinos in the same way that California has been doing for its residents. There should be heightened awareness through information dissemination, public announcements through the news or social media, regular updates on air quality, advisories on when to avoid outdoor activities (when APM or PM2.5 are at hazardous levels), and provision of masks as a health intervention (particularly for those publicly commuting in highly polluted areas). 

While air is necessary for survival, breathing in polluted air is a threat to the health and existence of humans. It’s a risk that Filipinos should be aware of, and most Filipinos are exposed to this risk every day even without wildfires in the country.

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