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Pollution in South Korea: Ultrafine and Fine Dust Density Levels at a “Very Bad Level”

Last January 9, 2022, the ultrafine dust density levels were at a dangerous range, especially in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, and South Chuncheon Province. Because of this, the Metropolitan Air Quality Management Office (MAMO) implemented restrictions for construction sites and vehicles from 6am to 9pm of the same day. They also encouraged citizens to limit their exposure from such particles by staying at home and making use of KF94 masks, which offer high levels of filtration for personal protection. 

What are PM2.5 and PM10?

PM2.5 is a term used to describe particulate matter that has the size of less than or equal to 2.5 micrometers. Similarly, PM10 is used for particulate matter that has a size of at least 10 micrometers. Concentration levels of particulate matters are measured because high levels of such have detrimental effects on the health of the population. Particularly, PM2.5, which are ultrafine dust particles, are able to reach an individual’s lungs and heart due to their small size. Studies have shown that exposure to such can contribute to the development of irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and decreased lung function. At the same time, it can also aggravate pre-existing conditions of individuals with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Apart from these, hazardous consequences of high levels of PM2.5 also include decreased visibility, decreased pH levels of bodies of water, and deterioration of soil quality for agriculture. 

The capital city of Seoul in South Korea. Previously known as Gyeongseong, the name was changed to differentiate the South Korean capital from city names in China.

Sources of Particulate Matter in South Korea

In South Korea, particulate matters come from both local and foreign sources. Fine dust particles produced locally are categorized as those from the Seoul Metropolitan Area (SMA) and the rest of the country. Diesel vehicles, construction equipment, and business facilities have the largest contribution to the country’s particulate matter levels. Over the years, Seoul has had PM2.5 concentration levels way above the guidelines set by the World Health Organization (WHO). As a response, South Korea implemented policies and guidelines to regulate industrial sites, monitor air quality, and mitigate harmful environmental consequences without sacrificing economic development. 

Government Response to Alarming Levels of Particulate Matter 

Given their progress, there remains much more to be done. Last November 2021, advisories on fine dust and ultrafine dust for Seoul and Gyeonggi were released. This comes after 6 months of having relatively good quality air, as evidenced by the absence of such advisories. South Korea makes use of a four-tier system in evaluating their ultrafine dust levels; namely, good (less than or equal to 15 µg/m3), average (16-35 µg/m3), bad (36-75 µg/m3), and very bad (more than or equal to 76 µg/m3).  At that time, ultrafine dust levels were categorized as very bad for Seoul, Incheon, Gyeonggi Province, and South Chungcheong Province, while the rest of the country were categorized as having bad ultrafine dust levels. Environmental factors caused the levels of the particulate matter to increase. These include micro particles moving from China to South Korea and stagnant air providing a conducive condition for air pollutants from local production to accumulate. 

Because of the change in air quality, as expected during the winter season, the government implemented the seasonal fine dust management program which will run from December 2021 to March 2022. This aimed to address the decreasing air quality during the winter season. During these months, individuals cannot use grade 5 emission vehicles that do not have low-emission functionalities in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province, and Incheon. In terms of facilities used by the general public, underground stations will be monitored, cleaned, and provided with air purifiers. “Air Korea”, an application for mobile phones, can be utilized by Koreans so that they can participate in creating a suitable environment in the country. Information on fine dust concentration levels, measures taken by utilities, and advice for appropriate action can be found. They can also report unlawful activities related to environmental regulations using the mobile phone application. Wastes from agricultural activities are also continuously managed by the mandated institutions. 

Furthermore, 8 to 16 coal plants are not allowed to operate during the aforementioned months. This is because coal plants highly contribute to the levels of fine dust. Lastly, the government will also work with China given that both countries are affected by the hazardous concentration of particulate matter and will both benefit when air quality improves. A direct bilateral hotline will be made available to improve communication between the two countries when fine dust levels go beyond allowable levels. This will enable both countries to share their best practices, evaluate measures taken, and respond to the situation within the appropriate time frame. 

Air Quality Index in South Korea Today

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure of air pollution, with values ranging from 0-500. The higher the AQI of a country is, the more hazardous it becomes for residents of the area. As of January 10, 2022, the AQI in South Korea is 156. This value is categorized as “unhealthy” and can negatively impact the general public, while those who belong to vulnerable populations may experience more serious health consequences. Similarly, the current PM2.5 concentration is 50 µg/m3, which is two times more than the standard set by the WHO (25 µg/m3).  

For expats choosing a place of residence within South Korea, it is important to be conscious of the air quality across different cities. The top 2 most polluted areas are Ichon and Anseong, while the least polluted areas are Seogwipo and Jeju. Seoul currently has an AQI of 160, considered as unhealthy, and a PM2.5 concentration level of 74 µg/m3. If one resides in cities which have relatively higher AQIs and PM2.5 concentration levels, it is advisable to wear an N95 mask for outdoor activities while the AQI is still at an unhealthy level. Apart from this, it is recommended to use an air purifier when staying indoors to improve the quality of air. During the period that the AQI is at a high range, doors and windows should be kept close to prevent outdoor polluted air from entering one’s space. 

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