Expert cites COVID-19 lessons for air pollution mitigation

posted September 04, 2021 at 07:30 pm
by  Manila Standard Business
An environmental management expert said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a valuable lesson on environmental protection, particularly on air pollution, and urged the government, private sector and the public to adopt and sustain the unexpected gains from the continuing community lockdowns and reduced travel.

Aldwin Camance, a chemical engineer and a passionate climate change mitigation advocate who has conducted more than 50 environmental impact assessments and about 10 environmental risk assessments, said: “While the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc to public health systems worldwide, it has inadvertently accomplished the seemingly impossible task of reducing air pollution in busy urban areas in the Philippines like Metro Manila.”

Citing the 2020 Environmental Annual Narrative Report of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Camance said the air quality nationwide in terms of particulate matter 10 significantly improved by 64 percent during the implementation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine on March 16 last year compared to the 2011 baseline. Particulate matter consists of microscopic airborne solid and liquid particles, including chemicals and organic and inorganic matter, which can be hazardous to one’s health.

Air pollution, according to Camance, is a serious health hazard that can cause death and debilitating respiratory conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD. “The Global Burden of Disease 2019 published by The Lancet ranked air pollution as the fourth highest risk associated with deaths at 6.67 million worldwide for all ages. It kills more than high fasting plasma glucose, high body-mass index or high LDL cholesterol. In the Philippines, the GBD 2019 ranked air pollution fifth, contributing to about 70,000 deaths in 2019, which is more than the deaths attributed to the pandemic from 2020-2021” he said.

The improvement in air quality nationwide, according to the report, was attributed to the limited human activity during the ECQ period. “Because of reduced social and economic activities, air quality was reported to have improved over Metro Manila. An estimated 6.4 million vehicles [mobile sources] and 704 industries [stationary sources] contribute to the air pollution emissions in the National Capital Region,” the report said.

Camance noted that the substantial reduction of vehicles on the road, which contribute around 81 percent of air pollution source in Metro Manila, made a significant difference. With this data, he recommended the adoption of measures that will help sustain this unprecedented improvement of air quality in the Philippines.

“We’ve seen the positive effect of reducing the number of fossil-fueled vehicles on the road. It would really make a huge difference if the government and private businesses would institutionalize the work from home arrangement for people whose jobs we have seen can be done at home,” he said.

“It will not only help the environment, but it also affords us more time for the family and less time wasted stuck in traffic jams, which actually is another big contributor to air pollution,” he said.

For those whose occupation requires them to be at the workplace such as the service and manufacturing industries, he urged the government to invest further in better public transportation such as trains and Bus Rapid Transit systems. 

“There are quite a few developments already ongoing in developing trains in Metro Manila but construction progress is slow since many may require relocation of a large number of households in an already crowded metropolis. Subways may be a better but costlier alternative,” he said.

“Even if you have a car, and there’s a comfortable and efficient public transportation as an option, you’d most likely choose to just leave your vehicle at home. It’s more economical. Besides, even inside the car, some studies have shown that air pollution can enter during heavy stop and start traffic. Trains and mass transit can be faster and can reduce the emissions in the city,” said Camance.

Camance also suggested a combination of classroom activities and home study for students. “When things normalize and children can return to face-to-face schooling, considering a few days a week studying at home will also significantly reduce the number of vehicles on the road,” he said, noting how noticeable traffic volume increases during the start of classes compared to the vacation months.

He advocated the wearing of face masks regardless of COVID-19. “I know this may not be popular but wearing a mask, even after the pandemic, during commutes will protect us from particulate matter and other pollutants that can harm our health,” he said. 

“Most of us are probably desensitized seeing smog in urban areas. We might not feel any immediate negative effect to our body but the effects of air pollution is compounding. Let’s not wait until we are confined in a hospital with serious cardio-pulmonary ailments. Because air pollution does not only affect the lungs, it also affects the heart and other organs,” Camance said.

Topics: COVID-19 pandemic , Aldwin Camance , Department of Environment and Natural Resources
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