Protect your lungs

There is one item that I’ve seen here in Manila that I think pretty much sums up life in modern Asian cities more than any other, the designer air-filtration mask. The masks are designed to protect against all airborne pollutants, including diseases.

Winter is the worst season for smog in Asia for a number of reasons. First, the rainiest season is finished and there is much less turbulence in the atmosphere. Smog near the ground surface does not get dissipated up into the atmosphere as quickly as it does at times when the weather is more turbulent. Second, people are using more fossil fuels to heat their homes in the winter, causing higher emissions levels.

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The Air Quality in China is making headlines this week. People have never seen air quality levels this bad in the cities. Shanghai recorded an Air Quality Index of 505 on Friday last week. The conditions are extremely hazardous. People have to plan their days around the air quality. There are those that have the luxury of being indoors, and there are those that are forced to be outdoors.


A few weeks ago I was on the LRT (Light Rail Transit) in Manila at around 7am. The LRT is elevated above the madness of the street, and you are able to see the skyline of Manila pretty well. I actually like riding on the LRT because I can get a good view of the city. Early in the morning, when the air is still and clear, the city is shrouded in a brown soup. The brown soup extends just above the skyscrapers of Makati City.

The Air Quality in Manila is pretty bad by the standards of most of the world, but it’s really nowhere near as bad as in China. Manila usually sees air quality levels of moderate this time of year, with some areas locally with AQIs of 100-200. The Philippines is actually fortunate to be warm enough year-round that people are not required to heat their homes in the winter. There is not quite as high of a traffic volume in Manila as there is in larger cities like Beijing or New Delhi. The air pollution in Manila tends to be more localized than in most other cities. It is also caused by a larger proportion of old, highly pollutive vehicles. You find that the air quality along the major transportation corridors is much worse than in areas away from most of the traffic.

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles. In the 1990s, the valleys to the east of Los Angeles had the worst air quality of anywhere in the US. The mountains to the east of Los Angeles tend to trap smog from escaping with the wind to the east. I remember not being allowed to play during recess when I was in elementary school because of hazardous air quality. The air quality in Los Angeles is now so much better than it used to be. California has enacted higher air quality standards, enforced smog-checks, and has required that auto manufacturers make cleaner burning vehicles. Industry standards have also changed. Just like Manila, Los Angeles’s bad quality was caused mostly by vehicular emissions. A significant proportion of the emissions come from older vehicles. I see so many similarities to how Los Angeles was in the early 1990s to how Manila is 20 years later.

I really hope that Manila can follow the example that Los Angeles has shown to improve its air quality and not go down the disastrous path that Beijing and Shanghai have taken. I really hope that Filipinos feel compelled to act to improve air quality standards and not just feel like they are powerless to do anything. People should feel like the changes they make in their own lives have an impact. There is a living example of what’s possible if you take a collective responsibility to stand up for environmental issues that relate directly to public health. For Manila, it’s really not too late to build a model for the future that sees air-quality improve in the next few decades. With so many people forced to live or work outdoors in Manila, hazardous air quality levels in this city would really be a public health crisis for the Philippines.

I decided to write about air quality because it is something that is so visible to so many people. It is one of the most obvious environmental health problems, and one we can easily fix if we enforce regulation on emissions and emission standards. It’s so important, especially with so many people flocking from rural to urban areas across the world. Too many places in the world operate on the outdated equation of CH=$. We are smarter than to trap ourselves into a fossil fuel dependent situation. I’ve developed a burning hack this week from spending so much time in rush hour traffic. I’m going to try to spend the day indoors today. I guess I need to ask Santa Claus for a designer air-filtration mask. Unfortunately, I haven’t been very good this year. I can’t even imagine what people in China are going through right now.

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