South Koreans angry, worried over toxic dust pollution

A woman holding her baby in her arms looks at a view of Seoul shrouded by fine dust during a polluted day in Seoul, South Korea, March 6, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS
Members of Green Korea United wearing gas masks hold placards during a rally against the development of a coal mine on the main street in Seoul, South Korea, 06 March 2019. South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered his government on 06 March to work together with China to fight fine dust pollution. PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Frustration and anger are growing in Korea as hazardous ultra-fine particulate pollution grips large parts of the country.

On Wednesday (March 6), emergency measures to reduce ultra-fine PM2.5 dust - particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter - were enforced for the sixth consecutive day in Seoul and surrounding areas.

President Moon Jae-in has also ordered his government to secure extra budget if necessary and consult with China to tackle the problem.

Checking the level of ultra-fine particles for the day, wearing a mask when going outside and avoiding outdoor activities have become part of the daily routine for many amid the worsening air pollution.

"I feel like my life expectancy is declining every day," said Ms Jin Cho, a banker in her 40s, who was on her way back to work with a colleague after lunch near City Hall.

"My eyes and my throat are sore. I bought a large number of masks and I don't even make dinner plans these days due to the fine dust," she said.

"I am angry, annoyed and worried whether I am outdoors or indoors because of the pollution."

The average hourly ultra-fine dust level was measured at 180 micrograms per cubic meter in Seoul, 176 in Gyeonggi Province, 155 in Incheon and 147 in Gangwon Province as of 1pm on Wednesday.

While emergency measures are in place in 14 cities, many people are questioning the effectiveness of government actions.

"What did the government measures change? Nothing," Ms Cho said. "The government should install air purifiers at bus stops, for example, if it wants to make a change we can feel in real life."

Under the emergency measures, city and provincial governments can ban old diesel cars from streets and restrict the operations of coal power plants and other emissions facilities.

They can also recommend temporary closures or the reduction of class hours and ask businesses to allow their employees to work flexible hours or from home.

Tourists vulnerable

The toxic level of pollution has been even more frustrating for those whose jobs force them to work outdoors.

"I am so depressed these days," said a police officer based in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province, who wished to remain anonymous.

"When levels of fine dust are extremely high like in recent days, I am worried about my health. But it is my job to spend six to eight hours outside.

"Isn't China the biggest problem? What is the point of banning old diesel cars from the streets? The government is only scratching the surface," he said.

Foreign visitors have appeared to be more vulnerable to the thick air pollution, with many not wearing masks.

"I received a fine dust alert in a text message, but that was all in Korean," 32-year-old Fung Tze Shan, a visitor from Singapore, said near the Gwanghwamun Square.

"I am not exactly worried because we don't stay here for long. But it is bad for sightseeing because the city looks gloomy. It doesn't look nice in pictures."

Amid mounting public concerns over alarming levels of air pollution, Mr Moon ordered his government on Wednesday to discuss dust-reducing measures - such as artificial rain aimed at clearing ultra-fine particles in the air - with China.

Artificial rain

"China claims our dust flies to China's Shanghai region, so making artificial rain over the Yellow Sea would help the Chinese side as well," Mr Moon said, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom.

Mr Moon also called for the permanent shutdown of aged coal power plants and the installation of air purifiers in more daycare centres and schools, according to the spokesman.

The government is closely working with China to fight particulate pollution and China has "strong willingness" to tackle air pollution, Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae said on Wednesday in a meeting with media.

Seoul and Beijing have held a series of ministerial and working-level talks on a regular basis to boost cooperation in solving the fine dust problem in the region. The South Korea-China Environmental Cooperation Centre opened in Beijing in June.

When the density of dust pollution is high on the Korean peninsula, a large portion of the fine dust - more than 70 per cent of ultra-fine pollutants over South Korea - is believed to be coming from China, a Seoul-run environmental institute said in a briefing on Wednesday.

"High density of ultra-fine dust continued recently because the weather condition caused air over the Korean peninsula to be stagnant and delayed diffusion of pollutants stemming within the country and from abroad," said Mr Shin Yong-seung of the Research Institute of Public Health and Environment.

The lack of wind and warm temperature causes the air over the Korean peninsula to be stagnant, a result of "climate penalty", Mr Shin said, adding that measures to fight fine dust must take into account how to mitigate climate change.

The density of PM2.5 in all areas here was forecast to temporarily go down on Thursday before pollution again worsens over the weekend, according to the National Institute of Environmental Research.

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