Beware the silent serial killer on the loose

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The lackluster celebration of the Clean Air month of November that is seemingly getting unnoticed only reflects not only our lack of understanding of air pollution as the silent killer on the loose, killing more than other environmental issues combined, but also the absence of our collective resolve to systematically reduce it massively through direct forms of intervention.

Deadly killers in the air? Despite 18 years of the Clean Air Act, emission levels may be worse now with more vehicles contributing 93 percent of total air pollution in Metro Manila, up from over 70 percent three decades back, partly because of no massive technological and institutional intervention while smokestack factories moved out to the countryside.

Deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases resulting indirectly from air pollution have risen, while health costs and lost economic opportunities have ballooned from $2.2 billion in 1990 to $2.8 billion in 2013, says a World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and
Evaluation study.

Deaths of Filipinos caused by air pollution soared over a 23-year period from 38,676 in 1990 to 57,403 in 2013, it added. Mortality figures may be higher if we include the 85,000 Filipinos who die yearly because of respiratory diseases like bronchitis, emphysema, pneumonia, etc., which are aggravated by air pollution.

The contributory effects of emissions to rising respiratory diseases cannot be denied. World Bank’s publication, Enviroment Monitor 2002, cited the University of the Philippines Institute of Public Health’s study, saying jeepney drivers recorded the highest chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases at 32.5 percent and pulmonary tuberculosis at 17.5 percent. Men are more vulnerable because they smoke more, but the correlation with vehicle emissions is undeniable as street children recorded the second-highest incidence.

Air pollution brings more diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that even cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease and lung cancer are caused mainly by air pollution.

The WHO said outdoor air pollution results in ischaemic heart disease, or 40 percent of total; stroke, another 40 percent; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 11 percent; lung cancer, 6 percent; and acute lower respiratory infections, 3 percent. Indoor air pollution induces strokes by 34 percent; ischaemic heart disease, 26 percent; COPD, 22 percent; acute lower respiratory infections, 12 percent; and lung cancer, 6 percent. These findings double previous mortality estimates, thus premature deaths worldwide have now hit about seven million yearly as of 2014, confirming air pollution as the world’s largest single environmental health risk.

World Bank cited a lower mortality of 5.5 million people killed in 2013, and resulting health costs, foregone labor income and lost opportunities of $225 billion. About 90 percent of the affected population are the poor from developing countries, which have poor clean-air programs and lax-enforcement measures.

Sure miss with measure? So far, our clean-air programs are limited to measuring air pollution from all angles, dimensions, its manifestations and content, but no institutional program in providing knowledge and actual solutions to reducing emissions.

We measure air pollution in many ways, which are necessary initially, but will surely miss the point if we just keep measuring endlessly. For one, we measure ambient air pollution or how dirty the air is, spending yearly hundreds of millions of pesos in procuring air-monitoring stations.

And yet, data derived here cannot diagnose problems and sources of pollutions, what more identify solutions. Moreover, unlike in continental countries, which have more stagnant air, our archipelago has regular sea breeze and air turbulence that dilute pollution concentrations, thus making ambient air measurements inaccurate, says expert Dr. Emman Anglo. More so as most stations cannot make real-time readings, thus their high 25- percent margins of error.

We also measure at Private Emission Testing Centers and Motor Vehicle Inspection Systems, which are often not implemented owing to rampant practice of “Nonappearance” paper compliance. Again, plans to conduct emissions inventory, focusing on area sources like counting barbecue grills, stoves, etc. is another measuring activity that is impractical as it requires mobilizing an entire army for data-gathering house to house. Moreover, why worry about area sources or household pollution, which is lower than smokestack factories, much more against vehicle emissions, which share 93 of total air pollution.

Penalties aren’t fine, education is. Again, emissions are measured when caught by Anti-Smoke Belching Units (Asbus). Public transport can get caught and fined several times a day, but no amount of penalties nor frequency of arrests will reduce emissions. Not even a change of vehicle or engine will guarantee no emissions, owing to 14-hour operations and passenger overloads.

Not being taught what to do, transport groups have no other choice to survive but succumb to the culture of compromise, which explains why some erring Asbus conduct road apprehension with apprehension or turn their heads elsewhere when smoke-belchers come around.

What is not implemented is Section 46 of the Clean Air Act, which requires that apart from penalties, smoke-belchers must undergo seminars on emissions reduction. Education, after all, is more lasting and empowering. Education also complies with Section 11, mandating government to make available all information, best practices and technological options on pollution control.

Maintenance is key. Educational seminars provide theory and knowledge, but are useless, unless put to practice through actual periodic maintenance. As public transport is over-stressed with 14 hours running time and passenger overloads, it is vulnerable to maintenance downtimes, which can affect amortization payments of the transport modernization program.

Perhaps, it is wise for government to enable transport groups to operate their own in-house maintenance centers to prevent maintenance breakdowns, assure continuous amortizations, and provide additional livelihood for the sector that will suffer the financial brunt of modernization. This way they need not pass on this burden to commuters through fare hikes. Moreover, we can arrest air pollution as the No. 1 silent serial killer.

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