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Silent killer in the Philippines

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Smog covers buildings in Manila. The Philippines ranked third in terms of the highest cases of death due to air pollution, according to a May 2018 report by the WHO: That translates to around 45.3 deaths per 100,000 Filipinos due to air pollution. China ranked first, with 81.5 deaths, followed by Mongolia, with 48.8. AFP

Silent killer in the Philippines

Fears of Covid-19 may have compelled most of us to wear face masks, but there’s another crucial reason why we should keep them on: A recent report has indicated that Filipinos are breathing dirty, unsafe air.

According to the 2019 World Air Quality Report compiled by Swiss-based company IQAir from ground-based monitoring stations around the globe, the Philippines’ annual mean for PM2.5 – a pollutant widely regarded as most harmful to human health – was pegged at 17 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) last year. This is almost double the safe level set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which placed the exposure threshold at 10 ug/m3.

While IQAir considers the country’s air pollution level as “moderate” based on the US Air Quality Index (US AQI), the health recommendation for such level is for sensitive individuals to avoid outdoor activity as “they may experience respiratory symptoms”.

Globally, the Philippines ranked 57th out of 98 countries in terms of average PM2.5 concentration last year. Indonesia topped the list in Southeast Asia, with an annual mean of 51.7 ug/m3, followed by Vietnam (34.1 ug/m3) and Myanmar (31 ug/m3).

Among the factors cited behind the unsafe air levels are the burning of toxic waste, pollution and heat-trapping carbon emissions from the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, as well as rapid urbanisation, which has resulted in the inordinate number of motor vehicles running on fossil fuels.

According to the Philippines’ Land Transportation Office, as of August last year, the National Capital Region, which includes Metro Manila, accounted for the largest number of registered motor vehicles at 1,644,932. Coming second is its neighbouring Region IV-A, with 880,168. These two areas alone account for almost 40 per cent of the total 6,783,696 registered vehicles nationwide.

Four major pollutants come from these vehicles: carbon monoxide when the carbon in fuel doesn’t burn completely, as well as hydrocarbons – a toxic compound of hydrogen and carbon emitted from a car’s exhaust.

Indoor air pollution is also a risk in the Philippines, with most cooking in urban poor and rural areas done using kerosene or solid fuels such as wood or coal. Deaths among women and kids have been linked to indoor air pollution.

The air pollutants we inhale are composed of particulate matter (PM), a mixture of solid particles or liquid droplets in the atmosphere that includes water, dust and salt particles. PM2.5, which the IQAir measures, is a particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, or just three percent of the diameter of a human hair. In high levels, fine particulate matter can reduce visibility. Worse, it is so tiny it can easily travel deep into one’s bloodstream through the respiratory tract, leading to such ailments as asthma, heart disease, and lung cancer.

The Philippines ranked third in terms of the highest cases of death due to air pollution, according to a May 2018 report by the WHO; that translates to around 45.3 deaths per 100,000 Filipinos due to air pollution. China ranked first, with 81.5 deaths, followed by Mongolia, with 48.8.

The IQAir report meanwhile indicated that, globally, PM2.5 pollution accounts for 29 per cent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer, 24 per cent of all deaths from stroke, and 43 per cent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“While the new coronavirus is dominating international headlines, a silent killer is contributing to nearly seven million more deaths a year: air pollution,” said IQAir CEO Frank Hammes in a statement.

Local environmental groups are calling on the government to take immediate steps to improve the country’s air quality, noting that the report looked only at PM2.5 pollution, and “does not include other pollutants such as sulfur oxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and other contaminants that carry deleterious health risks”. A recent report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia estimates that “toxic emissions can cost Filipinos as much as a 1.9 per cent loss of gross domestic product and 27,000 premature deaths.”

It is yet another health crisis the country can ill afford. As suggested by local green groups, it’s time for the government to review and update the Clean Air Act of 1999, and implement long-term programmes that would redirect the country away from wasteful and air-polluting practices. This isn’t just a question of convenience; the state of our air has become a matter of survival.



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