Clean air a matter of social justice
Two decades after the passage of the Clean Air Act, air quality is still a major environmental problem for the Philippines. One would think that 20 years would be sufficient time to clean up our atmosphere, or at least scrub the air of most pollutants.
Though much of the air pollution is produced by vehicle emissions in Metro Manila, recent studies show that people in the northwestern tip of the country are likewise being exposed to dirty air. The source of these pollutants is not homegrown, as scientists with the Environmental Pollution Studies Laboratory of the UP Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology (UP IESM ) prove. Northern Luzon has minimal industrial activity and certainly the number of vehicles plying its streets is minimal compared to Metro Manila.
No, the pollution is not made in the Philippines. Rather, as Dr. Mylene Cayetano, head of the UP IESM points out, the harmful emissions come all the way from China, wafted to our atmosphere by seasonal winds. Cayetano was involved in a study that looked into samples taken from Burgos, a fifth-class municipality of about 9,000 in Ilocos Norte; with no heavy industries, the town yielded an alarming level of fine particles that could cause serious health problems, including lung diseases.
The dilemma confronting the people of Northern Luzon brings to mind a similar cross-border crisis in Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines in 2015. Massive deforestation, especially the irresponsible and uncontrolled razing of entire swathes of forest in Borneo, produced haze, a fog-like atmospheric phenomenon that carried with it heavy smoke and produced levels of particulates that threatened the very young, the very old and those with lung problems in the affected countries.
Though there is a lot to worry about “imported” air pollution, of even greater concern is the pollution we produce all on our own, which, despite the 20 years that have passed after the passage of the Clean Air Act, has grown to even worse proportions.
Today, reports the World Health Organization, as many as 120,000 Filipinos die yearly due to air pollution, produced mainly by vehicle emissions and the burning of fossil fuels. While people with lung disease and asthma are particularly vulnerable, pollution is also a factor in cardiac distress and even cancer. A three-part special report recently published in this paper says that “with 45.3 deaths per 100,000 people, the Philippines has the third highest mortality rate in Asia due to air pollution, after China and Mongolia.”
Why has the Clean Air Act failed so far to realize its promise? Most experts put the blame on “lack of political will and fragmented interagency efforts,” which have weakened enforcement of the law—hailed by champions at the time of its passage as a decisive blow struck against the befouling of our air.
One other explanation has to be that air pollution is perceived as a problem of poor people, who are exposed daily to fumes from trucks, buses, jeepneys, cars and even motorized trikes. The wealthy and privileged, on the other hand, can filter out the fumes in their air-conditioned vehicles and air-conditioned offices and residences.
Indeed, as Dr. Cayetano points out, “air pollution is a matter of social justice.” Clean air, she asserts, has to be considered “as a basic human right. It’s a health agenda, and that’s where politics and governance should kick in. If we’re not affected, we don’t care. But people die early and are disabled at an early age because of our pollution.”
Early measures against air pollution were kickstarted when officers of agencies like the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations brought home portable air monitors to test them in “real life.” Most of these homes were in Forbes Park and other snazzy locales near Edsa, so when the data was collected, the expat homeowners were stunned to see actual proof of the air pollution in their homes, despite their centralized air-conditioning.
But that’s what air pollution is: It is everywhere, and modern conveniences can only do so much to reduce it. The country can only raise the quality of its air if it works to clean it for everyone: rich or poor, sheltered or exposed to foul air.
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