SEOUL – Air pollution is choking South Korea and the severity of the health hazard is blamed on micro particles and yellow dust blowing in from across the border with China.
Since the beginning of the year, people in rural as well as urban areas are waking up to mornings covered in thick smog with suspended particles called “fine dust” in the atmosphere, which causes eye irritation and sore throats besides other respiratory complications.
The situation has been aggravated by a meteorological phenomenon known as “Asian dust” or “yellow dust,” which for several hundreds of years has originated in the deserts of China and Mongolia and moved eastwards aided by the wind, especially during spring times.
The presence of this haze in the Korean peninsula has not only increased in recent years but also extended beyond the spring months. Its composition has only become more toxic over the years.
In January, Seoul recorded PM2.5 levels – which indicate the number of particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter – seven times more than what is considered safe by the World Health Organization.
“The situation is really serious. I have two children and I am concerned about their future if this air pollution persists. The government should solve this with concrete measures,” Kim Na-Hyun, a housewife, told EFE.
The situation has triggered increase in sales of masks, air purifiers and even dryers – fewer houses wish to dry their laundry in the open.
Incentivizing the use of public transport, reducing the number of diesel vehicles and substituting thermal power plants with renewable sources are some of the recommendations by experts to curb huge volumes of nitrogen oxide in the air, according to several studies.
However, these studies by organizations like America’s NASA, the South Korea environment ministry and the Seoul Metropolitan Government indicate that a part of the problem can be attributed across the border.
The studies say that growing deforestation in China and Central Asia has increased the incidence of yellow dust.
The studies also show that the sand particles, aided by weather conditions, carry eastwards the pollution generated by industrial activity in China.
In 2019, several conditions, such as scanty rainfall, anticyclones generating hot air and absence of icy currents from Siberia, have together contributed towards worsening the situation.
“The extra hazy days and the apparent increase of this phenomenon in the Korean Peninsula in the past 4-5 years mainly respond to specific weather conditions that have increased the transport of particles from China, on top of local emissions,” explained Kim Jhoon, who teaches atmospheric sciences at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Kim, an expert on analyzing air quality from satellite images, showed recent snapshots of high pollution levels taken on different days, to corroborate what many studies already say – that on the days that fine dust is especially dense, 70-80 percent of the particles come from China.
Against the growing severity of the problem, Seoul has been increasingly purposeful in bringing up the issue of fine dust in its talks with Beijing.
China, South Korea’s key regional ally of and main trade partner, denies any responsibility. But it has expressed willingness to collaborate on projects such as, for example, generating artificial rain to clean up the atmosphere.