The air that we breathe

The Philippines is certainly heading in the right direction to emerge as the next Tiger of Asia.

But, if the country is to blossom into a real Pearl of the Orient, many aspects of daily life need to be greatly improved, especially in Manila. Air pollution must surely rank as a high priority.

As I write this in my 22nd floor condo in Salcedo Village, a cloud of filthy air hangs over the capital. Makati City Hall is not far, but already by 9am it’s shrouded in a grey cloud of pollution.

By all accounts, the quality of the air in pollution-plagued Manila has worsened. And one doesn’t have to be a scientist to know the air contains pollutants that can seriously damage our health.

Again, one has to point a finger at exhaust fumes as the main culprit. One wonders if Cardinal Tagle, when briefing Pope Francis on the significance of the jeepney duringthe latter’s visit in January, mentioned they are a major polluter of Manila’s air.

While hundreds of smoke belchers speed along Manila’s thoroughfares with impunity, it’s obvious little or nothing is being done by the authorities to improve the quality of the air that we breathe.

So, safe in the knowledge that we are essentially on our own, what steps can we mere mortals take to lessen the impact of the filthy air around us?

Apart from moving to the provinces, there’s actually quite a lot we can do.

Watch where we walk: we can reduce exposure to air pollution by not walking along busy streets and thoroughfares. Instead we can use side streets and parks. Amazingly, pollution levels can fall by a factor of 10 just by moving a few meters away from the main source of the pollution - exhaust fumes.

The experts also advise us to avoid walking down “street canyons” where tall buildings hug tightly to the sides of streets, creating valleys in which pollutants build up.

Sidewalk sense: when we cross a road, we should stand well back from the curb while waiting for the lights to change or for a gap in the traffic. Experts say that every meter really does count when you are in close proximity to traffic. 

And we should avoid getting stuck for too long on central reservations. As the traffic moves off from a standstill, the fumes can dissipate in just a few seconds, particularly if it’s windy. And we should cross the road as quickly as possible. And once over, continue along the sidewalk far away from the curb as possible.

Avoid pollution spikes: predictably, there are large spikes in pollution during times of high traffic congestion - the morning and late-afternoon rush hours.

Wear a mask: one sees motorcyclists and traffic enforcers wearing masks. But they only make a difference if they fit tightly and are cleaned regularly. Even the slightest gap to allow you to breathe more easily will cancel out any benefits. Worse, if one fails to clean or change the mask regularly there is a danger of allowing oily organic compounds to build up on the filter making the air dirtier rather than cleaner.

Avoid exercising in traffic: apart from being run over by a Jeepney, cycling or jogging exposes us to air pollution - we inhale three times as much as if we were walking, for the simple reason that our lungs are gasping for more air. The best times of day to exercise are early morning or in the evening. Alternatively, exercise indoors or in a park.

Protect ourselves indoors: on average, we spend 90% of our time indoors and two-thirds of that at home. Indoor pollution can actually be more of an issue than that found outdoors. Studies by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that pollution levels can be two to five times higher indoors than out.

Ventilating our homes is therefore important, but hopefully with air that’s not full of pollutants from the outside.

And if you live in a posh penthouse high above the madding crowd, don’t think you’ve escaped. A study by Hong Kong’s City University used laser measurements to show that pollution levels in the city remain constant up to heights of 700m.


Robert Harland is a British national based in Makati City and Bacolod City

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