Before coming to Korea, I had been warned about hwang-sa (yellow dust), where desert dust from Mongolia and China blows across the continent to grace the region with its presence in the spring. It isn’t a new phenomenon, but these days increased desertification coupled with industrial pollutants make for especially fun times. When I arrived, however, I quickly found out that actually fine dust pollution is all the rage.
Fine dust pollution in Korea is a more recent phenomenon caused basically by burning fossil fuels (According to the EPA: “most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles.”) As the name implies, the particles are micro: PM10 is for particulate with diameters of 10 micrometers or smaller and PM2.5 for diameters of 2.5 micrometers or smaller. Both types are small enough to be inhaled and settle in your lungs and even your bloodstream. Additionally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the WHO) designates particulate matter in outdoor air pollution a Group 1 carcinogen. Needless to say, it’s not the stuff you want to be breathing. And yet we do. For a few days every winter and early spring, we don our masks and brave the smoggy gray skies.
The timing of this prompt coincided with the end of a particularly bad spell of fine dust pollution this week. Monday and Tuesday the government had emergency response measures in place to reduce air pollution in the city; I got a text announcing announcing parking lots for public organizations would be closed and asking for voluntary participation in the alternate-day driving scheme (cars with license plates ending in an even number drive on even-numbered days, and vice versa for odd).
Just another spring day in this beautiful and toxic urban jungle.
We call ours The Haze in Singapore. Some years are worse than others. But it is the reason we have souped up masks for use during Covid 19 now and we didn’t have to go scrambling to get masks when this madness started months ago,
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Yes, if there is any glimmer of silver lining to the fine particle dust in Asia is that it had us mask-ready. Also there was a little bit of culture of wearing masks anyway– celebrities wearing them at the airport, wearing one when you’re sick, etc.