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Last June 26, Filipinos began uploading photos of the smog blanketing the metro. Was this a sign of increasing urban pollution? Smog, a combination of smoke and fog, is largely attributed to pollution caused by vehicles and industrial activities. If smog had gotten so thick, what will happen to our health?
Two days later, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) released a statement that the smog was, in fact, vog—short for volcanig smog. According to the agency, the vog was due to the sulfur dioxide being emitted by the Main Crater of Taal Volcano in Batangas. Because of atmospheric conditions such as low temperature, high humidity and almost zero wind velocities over the volcano island, a noticeable haze was created. The sulfur dioxide plumes reached not only Metro Manila but also the volcano’s nearby provinces such as Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Pampanga.
In a Panayam sa Panahon TV interview, Dr. Renato Solidum Jr, officer-in-charge of PHIVOLCS, and Department of Science Technology (DOST) undersecretary for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate, said that vog is whitish compared to the darker smog. “A vog is a special occurrence wherein volcanic gases mix with air moisture,” he explained in a mix of English and Filipino. Vog may cause irritation of the eyes, throat and respiratory tract, especially among those with asthma, lung disease and heart disease. Children, the elderly and pregnant women are vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Engr. Jundy Del Socorro, chief of the Air Quality Management Section of the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR) added that another risk of vog is acid rain. “Because vog contains sulfur dioxide, it may mix with the rain. Acid rain is harmful to our plants and soil, and may corrode our belongings. When inhaled, sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory disease.”
An aerial view of the Pasig River (photo by Enrico Empainado/Greenpeace)
The vog may be dangerous, but once it cleared, urban dwellers still had to grapple with the perennial of smog. Solidum stated that smog has numerous effects on health. “You may experience difficulty in breathing, headaches, fatigue, blocked nasal passages, coughing, sneezing and nausea.”
When Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was declared in Luzon last March 2020, about 85% of industrial and transportation operations halted. As a result, DENR saw a drastic 70 to 80% reduction of air pollution concentration. “The skies were so clear that netizens from Bataan were posting photos of the visible Metro Manila skyline,” shared Del Socorro. “We were given a glimpse of what could happen if we follow all the provisions of the Philippine Clean Air Act.” According to the Department of Health website, the Philippine Clean Air Act “is a comprehensive air quality management policy and program which aims to achieve and maintain healthy air for all Filipinos.”
Sadly, this ideal situation did not last long. “Now that we are reopening our economy, we’ve observed that pollution levels are rising again, especially in highly-urbanized areas,” stated Del Secorro.
Causes of air pollution
The emission inventory DENR conducts every three years have been consistent in its findings. From 2002 to 2018, the top three air pollution sources in urban places were: 1) transportation, 2) industrial and commercial sectors, and 3) the general area such as residential and commercial cooking zones. “But the primary source is from the transport sector—from the smoke emitted by vehicles,” said Del Socorro.
But a little-known significant pollution source is from the household. According the World Health Organization (WHO), pollution in homes come from cooking practices that use open fires or makeshift stoves powered by kerosene, coal or biomass such as wood and crop waste. In fact, WHO states that almost 4 million premature deaths worldwide is caused by household air pollution. Half of these deaths are due to pneumonia among children under 5 years old, who have inhaled particulate matter in the form of soot.
While the use of LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) is safer for cooking, Del Socorro stressed that household air pollution also comes from other sources. “Smoking and trash burning (pagsisiga) increases carbon monoxide emissions. This enter our homes, and may be inhaled by senior citizens and children. Trash burning is against the Clean Air Act. Instead of doing this, segregate your trash and wait for the garbage collector to pick them up.”
E-jeepneys avoid the use of fossil fuels. This helps manage climate change, air pollution, solid waste and rising fuel prices. (photo by Luis Liwanag/Greenpeace)
Programs that address air pollution
DENR is “responsible for the conservation, management, and development of the country’s environment and natural resources.” Part of its mandate is to monitor air quality levels in different parts of the country, especially Metro Manila—the most polluted city of all. “If we are able to report and prove the air pollution level here, this can be translated into policies that will mitigate pollution sources.”
Because 70% of air pollution comes from vehicles, DENR has begun implementing the Euro 4 emissions standards. These standards, which came from the European Union, specify the limits for exhaust emissions. “Before vehicles can be registered at the LTO (Land Transportation Agency), they should pass the Euro 4 standards. They have to be tested in private emission centers, and provide proof that they have passed the Euro 4 standards. These standards are also applied in fuel, which has less sulfur content. When this is used by vehicles, they have lower emission levels.”
DENR is also tasked to monitor emission levels of industries including manufacturing plants and factories. “We take samples from their chimneys and bring them to the laboratory to measure their emissions. If they don’t pass the standards, we don’t permit them to operate,” Del Socorro said. In the local government level, ordinances that prohibit smoking and trash burning also seek to solve air pollution.
Meanwhile Solidum emphasized the importance of having a consolidated effort among public and private sectors to achieve clean air faster. “With the help of science and technology, we can have cleaner energy production because electricity requirements add to pollution. Second, urban areas should have an efficient mass transport system that uses new technology and doesn’t create much pollution. This includes trains, E-Tricycles and E-Jeepneys.”
Some indoor plants help lessen household pollution.
How we can solve air pollution as individuals
While the government crafts laws that seek to conserve the air for future generations, we should also do our part in lessening pollution.
- Work from home as often as possible. This health precaution during the pandemic also helps curb pollution. “During the ECQ when traffic demand was at its lowest, we’ve proven that we can significantly decrease air pollution levels. Even after the pandemic, maybe we can still implement the work-from-home scheme, so employees don’t have to commute or bring their cars.” Del Socorro added that when employees are in the office, energy demand also increases. “They use air conditioning and electrical appliances. When energy demand is high, our major power plants use more fuel that emit pollution. In the Philippines, our energy mostly comes from power plants.” For the same reason, everyone is encouraged to save energy in the household.
- Limit the use of vehicles. Join a carpool to lessen the volume of vehicles on the road. If your destination is nearby, ditch the car and bike or walk instead. Nowadays, biking lanes abound in the metro to ensure biker safety.
- Plan your travel well. If using your car cannot be helped, make sure to plan your route before leaving the house. Jot down your errands, and map out a route that maximizes time and energy. The longer you are on the road, the more fuel you use which produces pollution.
- Be a plantito/plantita. Aside from quitting smoking and inefficient cooking practices, Del Socorro recommended following the home gardening trend. “There are plant species that not only absorb air pollutants but also decrease in-house gases.” Some of these anti-pollutant plants are Spider Plant, Japanese Bamboo and Peace Lily.
While we strive to eliminate smog, here’s how you can protect yourself in case of a vog: