South Koreans grapple with bad air and bone-chilling cold

Downtown Seoul lies blanketed in a grey haze caused by fine dust in the air on Jan 14, 2018.
Downtown Seoul lies blanketed in a grey haze caused by fine dust in the air on Jan 14, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - Office worker Kang Byung Mi, 33, now begins his day with a routine that that he admits has become somewhat obsessive but unavoidable.

He would turn on a palm-sized monitor placed against his apartment's window to check the levels of fine dust in the air. He then checks Seoul's air quality index on the mobile homepage of Naver, the biggest Internet portal in Korea, and cross-check the reading with the one shown by a weather app on his smartphone.

"That helps me decide whether I should wear an anti-dust mask and how I should plan for the night," Kang told Yonhap news agency.

He is ready to leave his home once he has completed these steps, reported Yonhap in a feature on how South KOreans are coping with their country's current bout of bad air.

In recent weeks, Seoul and the surrounding areas have been hit by a thick layer of smog, forcing the government to implement emergency measures including free public transport, limits on car use for public employees, closure of hundreds of parking lots and a suspension of construction work on goverment-funded projects.

South Korea recorded an average of 80 micrograms per cubic meter of PM10 from Jan 15 to 21, a reading that falls under the normal range, according to Air Korea, an online air pollution tracker run by Korea Environment Corp. (PM10 refers to atmospheric particulate matter that have a diameter of less than 10 micrometers.)

But the readings for some regions fell into the "bad" category, with the central regions of Incheon, Gyeonggi province and Seoul reaching 117 micrograms per cubic meter , 125 micrograms per cubic meter and 100 micrograms per cubic meter respectively over the same period.

The readings prompted the South Korean authorities to issue health advisories, recommending the public to avoid outdoor activities. Many netizens took to the social media to vent their frustrations.

Popular Internet community sites and social media pages are filled with users' complaints over the grueling reality of "living with the windows shut for a week".

"Will I ever get a chance to air out the house? ... Being stuck at home is as suffocating as being outside," an Internet user wrote in a posting.

Yonhap reported that anti-dust masks, air purifiers, clothes dryers are now "must-have items that fly off the shelves".

"I'd only been out for 10 minutes or so, and my eyes and throat were already sore," said Kim Young Tae, a 67-year-old retiree from Seongnam.

"It's a bad environment and feels like it's getting worse every year," Kim said.

"Each one of us has just got to adapt in our own way to embrace it -- or what other choice do we have?"

For 44-year-old working mother Lee Hye Jin, she has been searching for indoor places she and her husband can take the kids to and spend time together.

"The list of venues runs out quickly, and we've basically set our feet in nearly every kids' cafe around Seoul," she was quoted as saying by Yonhap.

A kids' cafe is a large-scale indoor playground that comes with a cafe lounge for adults, a popular private facility among younger parents.

"I get claustrophobic in there seeing a whole flock of kids run and jump around in limited space but consider it something I have to live with," Lee added.

"It's almost suicidal letting children outside in this weather, let alone the cold."

Many parts of South Korea is also in the grip of one of their coldest winters , with temperatures hovering at minus 16.4 deg C in Seoul as of 8 am on Thursday (Jan 25) and minus 10.5 deg C in Gwangju on Thursday.

Parts of the northern and central regions, including Paju, Daejeon and Jeju, are experiencing one of their coldest periods between late December and January on record, with temperatures hovering around minus 17 deg C, according to the weather agency.

Thursday's daytime highs are to reach minus 9 deg C in Seoul, minus 5 deg C in Daejeon, minus 3 deg C in Gwangju and zero in Busan, with mostly sunny skies throughout the day.

Heavy snow advisories are in effect for Ulleungdo and Jeju, while the agency issued drought advisories for Seoul, Gyeonggi province, Gyeongsang provinces and parts of Gangwon province, according to The Korea Herald.