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Vol. XXVI, 1st Quarter
January–March 2008

Air Choke

What gives life could also snuff it. That’s if the quality of air that one breath has so worsened it becomes a constant strain to the lungs.

Air pollution doesn’t happen in a huff. Contamination of the air with harmful substances was acknowledged to be a problem as early as the 13th century when King Edward of England banned the burning of sea-coal. But maybe because particles in the air are too minute to attract immediate attention, people generally wave air pollution thought away.

air chokeBut when acid rain came down, people realized it’s not always fun to go singin’ in the rain. The machines’ massive proliferation during the industrial revolution blew more contaminants in the air until people realized that the thick “fog” that stirred in them the jolly Christmas feeling was actually harmful smog.

Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s renditions of foggy London at the turn of the century could be the earliest record of the infamous London smog, according to an analysis of the Royal Society A, a UK-based scientific journal.

What were previously insignificant specks in the air had grown to be a global health and environment hazard.

Air pollution in the Philippines
A Department of Environment and Natural Resources report in 2004 identified places in the country that recorded very high levels of deadly particles, with some even exceeding the National Air Quality (NAAQ) guideline values in the Philippine Clean Air Act.

Particulate matters (PM10 and PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitrogen monoxide (NO), and carbon monoxide, among others lead the deadly particles noted in the report.

PM10 are particulate matters 10 micrometers in size or about 25 times thinner than a human hair, while PM2.5 are far smaller at 2.5 micrometers or about 100 times thinner than human hair. PM10 are usually in the form of smoke, dirt, dust, mold, spores, and pollen that come from factories, farms, and roads.

Meanwhile, PM2.5 are toxic organic compounds and heavy metals that come from vehicles, burning plants, and smelting and processing of metals. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are emitted primarily by motor vehicles as a result of combustion of fossil fuel.

Carbon monoxide is produced when there is incomplete combustion of fuels and biomass, usually through gas cooking stoves, water heaters, charcoal grills, wood stoves, motor vehicles, power tools with internal combustion engines, and even smoking.

Automated stations set in various locations in Metro Manila and other key cities in the country indicated that total suspended particulates (TSP), those small solid or liquid particles that stay in the air, exceeded guideline values in all monitoring station locations. The highest annual mean concentration of TSP was detected at the intersection of EDSA and Congressional Avenue in Quezon City at 275 microgram per normal cubic meter against the guideline value of 90 microgram per normal cubic meter (ìg/Nm3).

Outside Metro Manila, the annual mean TSP guideline values was exceeded in 18 of the 24 monitoring stations. The town of Bocaue in Bulacan registered the highest TSP mean value of 859 ìg/Nm3, exceeding the NAAQ guideline value almost 10 times. The figure is attributed to the presence of rice mills near the sampling site. Other areas with more than twice the guideline value for TSP are Baguio City, Alaminos City, San Fernando City in La Union, Calapan City, Iloilo City, and Zamboanga City.

But DENR clarified that the indicated levels represent the pollution level only at the vicinity where monitoring stations are situated and do not represent the entire city or province where the stations are located.
As to very fine particulates such as PM22, monitoring data of the Department of Science and Technology’s Philippine Nuclear Research Institute showed that annual mean of three monitoring stations went beyond the guideline value of the US Environmental Protection Agency. PNRI said major sources of PM22 in Metro Manila are fuel burning and soil.

In a similar study undertaken by the Manila Observatory, PM2.5 levels were frequently found to exceed USEPA standards. The study noted that more than half or 56 percent of daily PM2.5 levels along major roads such as EDSA surpassed the acceptable standard.

What were previously insignificant specks in the air had grown to be a global health and environment hazard.

As for sulfur dioxide (SO2), data from all monitoring stations indicated safe levels that are all below the NAAQ guideline value of 60 ìg/Nm3 per year. Other particles such as lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone all registered below the guideline values in all parts of the country.

Health impacts
A study by Torres and Sabida (1991) of the University of the Philippines - College of Public Health traced the cause of high mortality and morbidity rates to respiratory illnesses caused by PM10.

People respond to air pollution differently depending on individual sensitivity to pollutants. The extent of harm it causes on people depends on the extent of exposure to hazardous chemicals, specifically on how long a person has been exposed and the concentration of chemicals in the air.

Air pollution affects health in both short and long term. Short-term effects include irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, and infection on the upper respiratory tract such as pneumonia and bronchitis. Other effects are headache, nausea, and allergic reaction. It can also worsen asthma and emphysema conditions. In the infamous 1952 London “Smog Disaster”, 4,000 people reportedly died due to high pollution concentrations.

On the other hand, long-term effects of pollution include development of diseases such as chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. Continuous exposure to air pollution leads to the aggravation of medical conditions among the elderly and lung problems among growing children.

Air pollutants such as ozone, metals, and free radicals can directly injure lung tissue. Ozone can likewise damage the alveoli in the lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. When organic pollutants reach the airway tissues, lungs respond by releasing potent chemical mediators that may affect the functions of other organs critically, such as those of the cardiovascular system. The lungs may also inflame and their functions impaired as a result of this response to toxic assault.

The cardiovascular system is also at risk when air pollutants get into the system, swim in the bloodstream, and find their way into the heart. When this happens, various chemical and biological substances may interact with the system and cause structural changes, such as death of cells and tissues and inflammations. 

Some pollutants may also cause changes in the rhythm and contraction of the heart. In severe cases, it may result to lethal arrhythmias, or disorders of the heart’s regular rhythmic beating.

A World Bank study indicated that in 2002, the main victims of air pollution in the Philippines were jeepney drivers who were highly at risk of acquiring pulmonary tuberculosis (PTB) that affected 17.5 percent of them. Bus drivers too, including those driving air-conditioned buses, ranked second among those affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) with 16.4 percent cases. The study also showed that at least 22 million or one out of four Filipinos are suffering from or exposed to various stages of TB.

Jeepney drivers and commuters face the greatest health risk because of prolonged exposure to vehicular pollution, which is inevitable in their livelihood and daily routine.

Public health and air quality
A report on public health monitoring by the Department of Health in 2004 showed that:

Economic impact
How does air pollution affect the economy? A World Bank study showed poor air quality threatens the people’s well-being and productivity. Particularly, air pollution affects the quality of life, damages materials and vegetation, reduces tourism, discourages foreign investments, and others. Further, loss of productivity due to pollution-related illness is a direct economic cost.

The study revealed that filthy air in the country resulted to 2,000 lives lost prematurely plus US$1.5 billion in lost wages and medical treatment. At the then exchange rate of P53 to US$1 when the study was made, a whopping P79.5 billion was lost due to air pollution.

WB valued the 2,000 lives lost due to PM10 at $140 million (or P7.42 billion); 9,000 people suffering from chronic bronchitis at $120 million (or P6.36 billion); and 51 million cases of respiratory diseases at $170 million (or P9.01 billion).

This is not all. The WB report also pointed out that the total health cost of exposure to particulate matter in Metro Manila and three other urban areas comes close to US$430 million (or P22.8 billion) in 2001. It determined the costs by computing the number of excess deaths and incidence of diseases due to impacts of pollutants. Filipinos reportedly spend about P2,000 per year on air pollution-related health expenses.

Government programs
The Philippine Clean Air Act (RA 8749) signed in June 1999 is a comprehensive air quality management program that aims to achieve and maintain healthy air for all Filipinos. The law took effect on November 25, 2000 following the signing of its Implementing Rules and Regulations.

The government has since implemented several initiatives to improve air quality such as the use of clean fuels (CME, ethanol, biofuel, LPG), phase-out of two-stroke motorcycles and leaded gasoline, diesel sulfur reduction, and improvement of pedestrian facilities and bikeways to encourage walking and biking.

The government has also intensified drives for proper and efficient emission tests, roadside antismoke belching, preventive maintenance technologies, and monitoring of private emission testing centers.
Moreover, the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 (RA 9003) prohibits open burning of waste blamed as the chief source of harmful dioxin and furan in the country.