Our country’s polluted air will only worsen if not addressed immediately, according to environmental groups.
Environmental, science, and health groups last week raised the alarm following recent reports on the poor air quality in the Philippines; calling on the government to address the problem before it gets worse.
The 2019 Air Visual Report revealed that air quality in the Philippines contains PM 2.5 (particulate matter is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) pollution levels, which “significantly exceed” the safety limits prescribed by the World Health Organization.
The said pollutant can come from various sources, especially combustion of fuels. Because of its small size, it can impair lung function and is known to cause respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and premature death.
In addition, the report places us in the 58th spot out of 98 countries with locations from where air quality data were collected.
Greenpeace Philippines, Clean Air Asia, Center for Energy, Ecology and Development (CEED), Health Care Without Harm, the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Philippines emphasize that while available Air Visual data did not place the Philippines as among the countries with the worst air quality, the data nevertheless show that the country still has very polluted air.
Year-on-year data show that the country’s air quality is getting worse. Average PM2.5 pollution levels in Air Visual sites increased from 14.6 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) in 2018 to 17.6 μg/m3 in 2019. The safety limit set by WHO is 10 μg/m3.
While useful, the groups noted that the report only looks at PM2.5 pollution, and does not include other pollutants such as sulfur oxide, nitrous oxide, ozone, and other contaminants that carry harmful health risks.
“This report is helpful in as much as it reveals the levels of one dangerous air pollutant, PM2.5, in the country. PM2.5 is a very dangerous air pollutant, but so are others like PM10, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, etc., that are not covered by the report,” explained Paeng Lopez, health energy initiative campaigner at Health Care Without Harm.
Lopez added the report underscores the need to upgrade “our obsolete air quality standards, as well as the fundamental duty of the government to make information on air pollution available and easily accessible to the general public.”
“It fails to present a whole-of-nation situation on the air quality of the country,” seconded Ian Rivera, national coordinator of PMCJ.
Rivera continued, “This might be misleading for a country that the report puts in a relatively high rank compared to others, but the instrumentation and methodology do not really indicate the real situation of what is happening on the ground, particularly in areas around coal-fired power plants.”
The groups are calling for improved monitoring, transparency, and analysis. In the case of the 2019 Air Visual report, the quantity and placement of air monitors from which data were collected provide only a small snapshot of the threat of PM 2.5 air pollution.
In a disclaimer published on its website, Air Visual said air quality data were collected from consumer-grade air quality sensors, however, “while readings have been validated against high-grade air quality monitoring stations in multiple locations, reliance on consumer-grade sensors entails a higher degree of measurement error.”
“Greenpeace understands the limitation that the rankings are subject to measurement error and so they are indicative, not absolute,” it added.
To be effective, the groups assert the government should monitor places close to main sources of air pollution such as coal-fired power plants and high traffic areas of motorized vehicles.
“The Philippine government should see the data as an impetus to overhaul air quality monitoring systems in the country, as well as to transition away from highly polluting facilities such as coal plants,” said Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Khevin Yu.
The groups have also called on the government to implement measures that will address the impacts of air pollution, such as declaring air pollution as a national issue as well as enhance transparency and expedite the review and update of the air pollution standards under the Republic Act 8749 or the Clean Air Act of 1999.
“With the Philippine Clean Air Act and the standards contained therein being more than 20 years old, reports such as that of Air Visual should instead bolster the urgent need to improve our air quality monitoring systems, update our air quality standards, and ensure that these are properly implemented,” said Gia Ibay, climate and energy program head of WWF Philippines.
Other measures that will help address the issue, according to the environmental groups, include making air pollution monitoring devices mandatory in all cities, particularly in heavy pollution industries; allocating more funds and manpower to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources; and implementing a transition plan away from the use of coal energy and fossil fuels in the transport sector; among others.