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Air pollution is more harmful than you think

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By Alfredo N. Mendoza V

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Air pollution may be one of the most dangerous aspects of public health that we underestimate and ignore.  But there is no doubt that we should take air pollution seriously, especially when we realize that it can factor in the deterioration of anyone’s health far worse than we once know.

This National Science Week, air quality takes center stage again since the promulgation of the Clean Air Act of 1999.  We explore the other implications in being aware and really understanding air pollution through the expertise of Mylene Gonzaga-Cayetano, Ph.D., one of the country’s leading experts in air quality.

Dr. Gonzaga-Cayetano is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology (UP-IESM), where she has been teaching for 12 years now.  Gonzaga-Cayetano is also the deputy director for academic affairs in the same institute. Aside from her administrative role, she is also a full-time researcher, supervising and spearheading UP-IESM’s efforts in air quality research.

Air quality data

She, along with her team, gathers air quality data around the country, which tell where they originate from, and the kind of pollutants that are in the air. They then publish these studies in the hopes that they would translate to viable strategies and campaigns for policy-making.

According to Gonzaga-Cayetano, air pollution is an issue we must take seriously, considering that they pose a hazard to health more gravely than most of us might think. Her goal is to mainstream scientific knowledge of air quality into academic learning for students, and to make Filipinos understand why we should be aware of air pollution.

The primary concern of her work and research is the presence of organic compounds in the air called persistent organic pollutants or POPs.  POPs are organic compounds that mimic the structure of bodily hormones. They’re so small that they can be absorbed in the blood stream through breathing.

There are many subtypes of POPs, but all of them are carcinogenic, mainly because the body mistakes them from being natural hormones.  And these POPs can come from a lot of common materials and objects like aerosols, fire retardants, electrical coatings in electronics, insecticides, anti-malaria and dengue fumigators, and other combustible materials like cigarettes and agricultural byproducts. The list doesn’t end there. As science progresses further, the more we learn about emerging POPs.

“The alarming thing is that these [POPs] are the ones that really last in the environment. For example, if the POPs were emitted in the 1980s, they would still persist to this day. Our transformers before, the recognizable drum transformers, once contained PCBs—polychlorinatedbyphenics as its transformer oil. When emitted, they become POPs. Now they are banned, thanks to the Stockholm Convention. I was interested because PCBs are part of POPs, and the methods of testing them are the same with collecting particulate matter,” Gonzaga-Cayetano said.

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The air we breathe Dr. Mylene Gonzaga-Cayetano, one of the country’s leading experts in air quality, talks about the state of the country’s environment, particularly the poor and harmful air quality in cities. (Alfredo N. Mendoza V|Manila Bulletin)

Personal advocacy

She takes the study of air quality not only as a profession, but a personal advocacy. Her lab constantly updates their work on the model of air pollution in Metro Manila. She also concentrates on local and international projects such as Dispersion Modelling of Particulate Matter in Metro Manila, and Air Quality Programs for Smaller Cities.

Before graduating BS Chemistry from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Gonzaga-Cayetano had tuberculosis, which made her stop her studies for a time. After recovering, she became interested in the study of particulate matter made by photocopiers.

Tow of her collaborators at the UP-IESM laboratory

Tow of her collaborators at the UP-IESM laboratory

“What I found out during that time, the lead content in the air was high. Particulate iron levels were also high in the air, but iron is a macronutrient—this was in 1999.  And maybe, at that time, leaded fuels were not yet banned. I was able to conclude that iron was a component of the toner, and lead was still questionable. Though the lead levels from the toner itself are low, which may have come from the outside,” she said.

After graduating from UP, Mylene worked at the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) for one year as a water quality chemist before applying for a master’s degree in the same university. After her job at the LLDA, Gonzaga-Cayetano become a lab analyst at the Natural Science Research Institute, which is also in UP.  During her pursuit of her Master’s, while working as a lab analyst, she became interested in PCBs. It eventually became the subject of her master’s thesis in 2007.

“My professor, Dr. Santiago, was the head of the lab where I work, and she was also interested in research.  So she was involved in a study before, the Global Atmospheric Pollution (GAP) study.  But I also helped her find that contact because I wanted to continue my study on the topic, too. But at that time, there were very few scientists who were working in the field of air quality,” she explained.

From her newly acquired Master’s Degree in Environmental Science, Gonzaga-Cayetano jumpstarted to her Ph.D. in Korea at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology. After acquiring her Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Engineering, Gonzaga-Cayetano returned to the university to continue her research, as well as help in the establishment of a movement of the country’s air quality experts.

Alarming results, better initiatives

The primary movement toward the improvement of air quality revolves around the Clean Air Act of 1999,which the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) led in terms of execution.

In 2005, there was a global campaign initiated by Environment Canada and the University of Lancaster—they wanted to know the baseline of POPs all over the world, including Manila. After Gonzaga-Cayetano, then a master’s student, contacted them so that they might be able to test the air quality of Manila, the results gathered were surprising.

“They used air samplers and, at the same time, we prototyped those samplers so we can have more than one and then it was time to map out the air quality in Metro Manila—we placed three in Metro Manila and then in Taytay, Bulacan, and Laguna. What we found out is that we have high levels of PCBs. You’ll be surprised by how high PCBs were in some places like in UP,” said Gonzaga-Cayetano, who is also an author of seven SCI-rated papers and journals, and resource speaker to various lectures and conferences in the country.

With this situation, DOST felt the need to gather all experts in air quality and craft an air quality roadmap together with other stakeholder groups like Clean Air Asia, an international NGO dedicated to improving air quality, and Partnership for Clean Air Philippines (PCA), a non-stock and non-profit corporation composed of individuals of various disciplines, which is the main policy planning arm of the group. The group thenformed and called itself RESCueAir—Researchers for Clean Air.

“After that, the DOST then wanted RESCueAir to form a roadmap for air quality research. Together with the Department of National Resources (DENR), the MMDA, and other relevant agencies, we have defined our goals in our road map—to identify the gaps in air quality research and improve research, on how we can, with our current initiatives, fill in the gaps and the much needed researches and to create projects from which we will measure results, too—what will happen to the air quality when these projects are put in place? These are the goals and questions of our new formation,” said Gonzaga-Cayetano.

“Through the roadmap, we plan to translate all our findings into public policy. DOST has a stake in the Clean Air Act—anything that has to do with the research in relation to the Clean Air Act, DOST is the go-to.  Now we have a chance because anything the DOST does in the future, should be reflected in the Clean Air Act,” she added.

A page from Gonzaga-Cayetano’s research

A page from Gonzaga-Cayetano’s research

Social awareness

Scientific research is one thing, translating it to understandable terms is another. And people, though they recognize that there is air pollution, they do not acknowledge it for the threat it really is.

To know how badly needed the study of air quality is, Gonzaga-Cayetano and her team at the UP-IESM conducted a study on the amount of emissions of jeepneys and tricycles. In their study, PM 2.5 Emissions from Jeepney and Tricycles, it has been found out that, in a year, a jeepney spouts out about 22.07 tons of emissions, while a tricycle, 22.55 tons—that’s the equivalent of almost 800 (50kg) bags of cement, each year—800 bags of particulate matter and possibly POPs thrown into the atmosphere each year by two vehicles. Now imagine that for every vehicle in the country.

And it’s not only vehicles, a study from abroad found out that household air pollution (soot, smoke from stoves and grills, and other sources or burning in the housefold) is the fifth leading burden of disease, after alcohol use and being exposed to secondhand smoke.

Which is why the good doctor and her husband, who is an IT engineer, developed an app, which would determine the quality of air in Metro Manila in real time.

Think of it as the Waze of air quality, an app developed by Gonzaga-Cayetano and her engineer-husband tells users of the air quality of a given place and sound advisory that could benefit their health. (Alfredo N. Mendoza V|Manila Bulletin)

Think of it as the Waze of air quality, an app developed by Gonzaga-Cayetano and her engineer-husband tells users of the air quality of a given place and sound advisory that could benefit their health. (Alfredo N. Mendoza V|Manila Bulletin)

Air-monitoring app

The Air Quality Monitoring System (AQMS), which is free and available to iOS and Android smartphones, only has four locations currently, but with support from the local and public sector, it could monitor air quality throughout the Metro more accurately. AQMS also advises its users on what to do during high levels of air pollution.

“Ordinary people should know that air pollution exists—the problem is we do not feel it.  We will only be concerned about it if we’re already affected—when we’re sneezing, coughing, but still, even with these symptoms we won’t associate them with air pollution. I mean, for example, people would still associate them with something else—which they caught from another person, or anything besides air pollution.  Because it can’t be seen, it’s not taken seriously. Even lung cancer, it’s difficult for people to associate it with air pollution. As we progress with science, we discover more things that can harm our bodies. It doesn’t seek to scare us or anything, but that’s how science is,” Gonzaga-Cayetano said.

She also explained that the body might not be able to develop a natural resistance toward air pollution because air pollution is mostly synthetic industrial waste. “These are anthropogenic (human-made) substances, so the human activities must consider sustainability, cleaner technologies, and environment-friendly methods. I don’t think we can develop a natural resistance for these pathogens—people must not adapt to air pollution, because we must eliminate air pollution,” she said.

Another aspect is geography. Gonzaga-Cayetano said that the Philippines is luckier than other countries because it is an archipelago with no land borders and has a monsoonal season; and rain washes away pollutants from the air. “Relatively, the country is luckier than others because our season is monsoonal and it often rains here. So during monsoons the pollutants get washed off. Unlike in other countries where they have four seasons, the pollutants get trapped between the atmosphere and the ground, and it takes about one to two weeks before it dissipates,” she said

National and personal commitment

After this, the only advantage we have against deteriorating air quality is knowledge and the Clean Air Act of 1999. Though we are committed in the reduction of carbon emissions, as we are a signatory to the recently conducted Paris Climate Agreement, in our provinces, the sources of air pollution still persist because they are mostly from burning—pagsisiga, and the burning of agricultural byproducts, and such acts are hard to break because they are already embedded in tradition and superstition.

While Dr. Gonzaga-Cayetano and her peers are at the forefront of the scientific innovation, what can we do as ordinary individuals? We must always bear in mind that the air that we breathe is the same as for everyone else in the world, and what we do with it may affect others breathing it. It may be hard to dispose of habits like smoking, idling your car, pagsisisga, but these small habits affect everyone in a huge way, especially when we know that some substances can persist up to many decades. Let’s take our cue from the motto of RESCueAir—Malinis ang hangin, dahil sa akin!(Because of me, the air is clean!).

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