South Korean Air Pollution Puts Focus on Government, China

Record high ultra-fine dust levels in South Korea this week are creating urgency for political leaders to take action towards ensuring more breathable air.

Levels of particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) in diameter hit new records on Monday and Tuesday, soaring in excess of what international health officials deem acceptable.

The World Health Organization recommends keeping PM 2.5 pollutants below 25 micrograms per cubic meter. Seoul’s concentration of fine dust measured 111 micrograms Wednesday, with even higher levels in outlying regions.

The capital region’s iconic mountain and skyscraper cityscape has been a dim and hazy silhouette for much of the week, and mobile phones across the country have been vibrating with warnings from the government that citizens should limit outdoor activities. Anti-pollution masks are a frequent sight on convenience store shelves and on commuter faces.

The pollution levels have triggered local emergency measures around the country under which coal plants and other pollution emitting facilities can be restricted. Older diesel cars can also be banned from roads, and school and work hours can be curtailed at the discretion of local officials.

A high concentration of automobiles is one factor cited in South Korea’s pollution problem, something the government is trying to mitigate with a major push toward hydrogen and fuel cell vehicle development. South Korea has also pivoted away from nuclear energy in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, reverting to coal for energy needs. However, experts say as much as 70 percent of the dust blows over from China.

Shing Yong-seung, with the Research Institute of Public Health and Environment in Seoul, said fireworks displays in China contributed in part to the recent spike in pollutants over the Korean peninsula.

“On February 19, we were able to confirm that chemicals used in Chinese fireworks increased up to 11 times higher than the previous concentration,” Shin told reporters in a Wednesday briefing. “This means that China’s pollutants have also affected the country, especially Seoul,” he said.

President Moon Jae-in instructed government officials Wednesday to discuss ways for South Korea and China to cooperate, including collaboration on artificial rainfall, or cloud-seeding to rinse some of the particles out of the air. “Since China is more advanced in artificial rainfall technology,” spokesman Kim Eui-Kyeom told reporters,“the president instructed the Environment Ministry to push forward on artificial rainfall projects with China in the West Sea.”

Lawmakers from South Korea’s three largest parties say they’ll work together to pass new measures next week aimed at combating severe fine dust. Many South Koreans complain that short term domestic steps will not sufficiently clear the air, saying only more proactive cooperation with China is likely to have any chance of being effective in the long run.

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