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04/09/2018 Special > Special


Fine Dust Threatening Korean People’s Health

What is fine dust and why is it polluting the air so much?


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On some days, you must have experienced logging into your social media account to find the endless pictures of blue skies posted by your friends. A day with a blue sky in South Korea has become something to celebrate, take pictures of, and be happy about. This was not the case several years ago. What happened to Korea? 
A photoshoot of Jamsil, Seoul covered with fine dust on January 4th. 
(Photo courtesy of Weekly Donga) 

What is fine dust?
Fine dust consists of fine particulate matter (PM). There are two levels of measurement: fine PM is smaller than 10 µm in diameter (PM10), and ultrafine PM is smaller than 2.5 µm in diameter (PM2.5). For understanding, a PM 2.5 particle is thirty times thinner than a human hair. Because the particles are so minute, they are absolutely invisible to bare eyes and can permeate our skin, causing various health problems. 
Korea is using a six-grade forecast system for fine dust and ultrafine particle concentration: good, normal, poor, bad, very bad, and dangerous. From the poor level (81~150µm/m3per day), vulnerable sections of the population such as the elderlyyoung, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular disease are advised to refrain from outdoor activities and stay indoors. 
Fine dust officially became a problem in 2013. Before then, the concentration level of fine dust was not high enough for people to pay attention to. Ever since the official forecast began in February 2014, public awareness about and efforts to reveal the sources and regulate them have been increasing. 
Fine dust concentration level
(Photo courtesy of Seoul Solution)

How problematic is it?
The effects of fine dust range from a mild sore throat to increased chance of cerebrovascular (related to brain and blood vessels) diseases. According to the Korean Medical Association, the environmental catastrophe can cause respiratory problems such as bronchial or asthmatic diseases, and also expose people to conjunctivitis, namely itchy eyes and skin rashes. This particular symptom is serious due to the infinitesimal size of the dust particles. As it is too microscopic, it can easily pass through our natural filter in the nose and throat, permeate as deep as into the alveolus, the micro-organs in the lungs where gases can pass in or out of the blood. 
To make matters worse, studies have shown that fine dust can also cause mental diseases such as depression and dementia. Because people are exposed to less sunlight every day and cannot go outside as much as desired, on top of constant worries about the pollution and their health, air quality largely influences people’s daily lives. Namely, the Korean Baseball Organization postponed games scheduled on April 6thin Seoul, Suwon, and Incheon due to the government warning of the fine dust danger level. This had never happened in Korean baseball history before. 
Same place, different fine dust level. It is getting harder and harder to see a clear sky in Seoul.
(Photo courtesy of YTN)

Reasons still not clear

What is the source of all the dust? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to the question. The Ministry of Environment has announced that 30 percent to 60 percent of the fine dust floating in Korea's atmosphere is from China. On top of this official statement, Chinese government’s plan to move some of its factories to nearby cities such as Tianjin further provoked Korean citizens’ anger towards the Chinese government. Observation of the air components in Seoul during the Chinese New Year supported the claim that China is a major contributing factor of air pollution, as chemical substances used in massive fireworks were detected.
However, there are abundant research that counters such a claim. Many research operations assert that although we cannot deny the influence of Chinese factories for the current phenomenon, domestic ones also contribute to the pollution. Some even suggest that secondary particles generated in the atmosphere as a result of chemical synthesis make up most of the pollutants. Discerning sources and asking for compensation is extremely difficult in the case of solving the air quality dilemma, as chemicals emitted into the air from domestic factories highly resemble those produced in China, and the flow of air and air pressure also play a big role in determining the air quality for the day.
The Seoul metropolitan government has been trying to reduce fine dust particles emitted domestically through automobile and construction site regulations, but it has not seemed to alleviate the situation. Careful scrutiny by research institutes along with the government into the sources and possible solutions is an urgent need for people. 

Kim So-yun
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