When the Air You Breathe Can Kill You

Metro Manila air improved during quarantine. How can we keep it that way?

ILLUSTRATION War Espejo

(SPOT.ph) You learn it in grade school: Pollution affects everyone on the planetand in some cases, it can even kill you. It's a consequence that's particularly likely in low- to middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization, with air pollution contributing to more cases of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and respiratory diseases.

It's no surprise, then, that the Internet rejoiced when one of the unexpected effects of the COVID-19 quarantine was that the skies became a little bluer. Sure it’s also been a whole lot hotter, but Metro Manila has generally enjoyed more breathable air, with the National Capital Region slowing down to a near-halt beginning in mid-March. 

A surprisingly clear view of Metro Manila taken from a Pasig City rooftop taken on March 26.
PHOTO BY Jamie Sanchez
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As a result, Metro Manila air benefited from the fact that most of us were staying at home. Roads were empty, offices and factories quiet, malls shut down, and the usual hum from big generators and other machines was gone. With all of these activities down to a bare minimum, the decrease in air pollutants was a logical result—except who was thinking about that amid a pandemic?

The question now: How much longer are we going to be able to enjoy this cleaner air? Traffic in Metro Manila has again started building up in the past few weeks. Several businesses and malls have also been allowed to open up as we shift to a modified enhanced community quarantine. Are we going to have to say goodbye to our clear, blue skies?

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How Did the Metro Manila Air Clear Up?

What's that behind the Metro's skyscrapers? Yup, the Sierra Madre.
PHOTO BY Jamie Sanchez
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One of the few silver linings in the first few weeks of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila was being able to see distant sights you might not have seen before. The Sierra Madre mountains popped back into view from the city’s buildings, and one photographer in Pasay City, Donald Pancho, was able to capture the windmills in Pililla, Rizal through his lens

Take a look at the windmills in Rizal—all the way from Pasay City.
PHOTO Courtesy of Donald Pancho

A pretty massive drop in air pollutants was recorded in Quezon City just a few days after the quarantine started on March 16. The count of air particles—specifically atmospheric particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers (a.k.a. PM 2.5)—dropped by up to 180% at the Lung Center of the Philippines measuring station, according to data from Airtoday.ph. “Majority of the air pollution comes from vehicle emissions. Cordoning off East Avenue and Quezon Avenue, both hospital zones, brings positive feedback of cleaning the air,” noted Dr. Mylene Cayetano, the project’s technical adviser and associate professor from the University of the Philippines - Diliman Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology, in a statement.

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The City of Manila also recorded a continued drop in air pollutants in early May, with a decrease of PM 2.5 by up to 56% at the City Hall’s Freedom Park. But why all the fuss over such a small thing? See, PM 2.5 are essentially ultra-fine particles that can get into your lungs, causing or aggravating respiratory conditions. It may even get into your bloodstream.

Ayala Avenue, almost empty during the quarantine.
PHOTO BY Jerome Ascano
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On a global scale, daily carbon dioxide emissions were found to have declined by as much as 17% from January to April as compared to last year’s average numbers, according to a study published in the Nature Climate Change journal on May 19. But this isn’t a complete win for clean air. “I can't celebrate a drop in emissions driven by unemployment and forced behavior," Rob Jackson, a co-author of the study, told CNN. "We've reduced emissions for the wrong reasons." Plus, the reduction—along with the spell of clean air—is more of a side effect of the crisis and are therefore short-lived.

What Happens to the Air Post-Quarantine?

“As we slowly enter the ‘new normal’ activities, the air pollution will go back to moderate to unhealthy levels,” said Dr. Cayetano. She and a team of experts from the University of the Philippines in Diliman (UPD) warn that things will go straight back to normal—at least, for Metro Manila air—if we forget all the changes that happened during the quarantine. “If we wish to maintain ‘good air quality’ to be the ‘new normal’, we have to make conscious choices in our usual activities pre-ECQ.”

A visual shows the decreasing levels of nitrogen dioxide in Metro Manila. Each image presents the weekly average, from March 2 to April 19. Dr. Balagtas notes that open burning up north could have affected the levels towards the last few weeks.
Created by Roseanne Ramos / UPD
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While it’s true that decreasing levels of nitrogen dioxide—a pollutant that is mainly caused by burning fuel (read: vehicles, among other things)—were recorded in Metro Manila during the quarantine, there is no guarantee this trend will continue as the quarantine shifts. There are several factors to air pollution, as Dr. Gerry Bagtasa, professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology (IESM) pointed out.

“Car emission is a big contributor, but not the only contributor to [National Capital Region (NCR)] pollution,” he stated in a report. There is the practice of open burning across the Philippines, as well as dirty air from other countries being swept in by the winds.

Cars build up along EDSA on May 16, the first day of the modified enhanced community quarantine.
PHOTO BY Jerome Ascano

If we want cleaner air to be part of the new normal, explained Dr. Cayetano, there are several things we have to ensure as a nation:

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  • Strengthen and enact long-term solutions (i.e. a proper and sustainable mass transport system, green cities, urban planning, road space for non-motorized transport systems, fuel economy, clean energy)
  • Increase transparency in the emission testing system, with proper and rightful apprehension for violators
  • Ensure road worthiness compliance for all vehicles
  • Protect our hospital zones located along major thoroughfares

Air pollution has been cited as the cause of around 27,000 deaths annually in the Philippines. These deaths were prematurely caused by diseases aggravated by dirty air. Metro Manila could be heading right back to where we came from. “Clean air in cities has become a luxury,” pointed out Cayetano. It took a pandemic—along with thousands of mortalities—for us to even get a bit of fresh air in the Metro. And as Cayetano added, “We wouldn’t want this scenario again to attain clean air.” 

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