The misinformation about "clean" air: case study on south korea
Every country has a national Air Quality standard, but to avoid creating panic, local governments sometimes understate pollution levels and end up creating standards below what the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed as acceptable.
an eye-opening trip
A recent business trip to South Korea by Airpura’s president and the Project Manager proved to be an eye-opening experience for them both. After exiting the Incheon International airport in Seoul, they caught a cab to take them to their destination and less than five minutes into their trip, both started experiencing burning and watery eyes, stinging throats, and congestion with a lot of mucous. “It was like being locked in a small room with a chain-smoker and no ventilation” is how they both described it. They suffered considerably for the duration of their 4-day trip. But once they reached home to Canada, as quickly as the symptoms had appeared, they disappeared.
What could account for this mystery set of symptoms that afflicted our two visitors throughout their trip?
At the time of their trip, the Air Quality Index was 75. By the Korean government standards, this was considered a “good day”. In reality, an AQI of 75 is considered the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. According to Canadian standards, anything more than a rating of 50 is considered unacceptable. Anytime the AQI is more than 50, news outlets alert citizens to take necessary health precautions. What caused the visitors burning throats were the chemicals and gases in the air and their bodies were just not used to such poor air quality. The worst it ever got in their hometown of Laval was an AQI of 55 (which happened just 3 times over the past year). The Air Quality Index is calculated based on a measurement of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions however, there are staggering differences in between what’s considered acceptable by the World Health Organization and what national governments have deemed as an acceptable standard for their country.
If you just considered the particulate matter portion of the equation which is considered one of the most deadliest component of polluted air, the differences in standards can be very different. We explore one example, South Korea air quality, who tops the list in having some of their worst air on the planet.
dIFFERENCES IN MINIMUM Acceptable PARTICULATE MATTER STANDARDS IN KOREA*
|Particulate Matter Size||World Health Organization Standards(WHO)||Korean Ministry of Environment Standards|
|PM 10||20 μg /m³||
* ANNUAL AVERAGE
why particulate matter is dangerous
Because it is so fine, particulate matter can penetrate into the deepest recesses of the lungs and remain there. Even short exposures can produce coughing, irritation and bronchial inflammation. Children and the elderly are particularly sensitive to fine particulate matter, as are people with asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, emphysema or chronic respiratory ailments. Particulate matter is also a contributing factor to respiratory infections.
In sensitive individuals, fine particulates may also cause disease and cardiovascular accidents.
Epidemiological health studies reveal that emergency room visits, hospital admissions and deaths peak during periods when particulate levels are high. The effects of long-term exposure can cause show a permanent loss of lung function and higher rates of cardiovascular and lung cancer deaths.
Fine particulate matter has been linked to higher cases of autism in the general population, decreased cognitive function and even diabetes.
Our visitors ended up leaving South Korea with their health returning back to normal after a few days of breathing in clean air in Canada, but their thoughts kept returning to the plight of South Koreans who don’t have the luxury of leaving their home and have to endure surviving in this dangerous environment on a regular basis. South Koreans may not realize that on designated “good days”, those days are really not that good.
On average, South Korea had an astounding 296 days of poor air quality in the past 12 months. * (AQI of 50 and more). That equates to each resident smoking close to 600 packs of cigarettes a year. Government policies are usually aimed at quelling citizen’s fears rather than solving their pollution problems, but that, unfortunately, comes at the expense of millions of peoples’ lives.