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Clean air: Does it really matter?
by Susan Ruth Nool

Year round, while some are agog about festivities, politics, and the latest in showbiz, others are uneasy and furious about news that harm Baguio City’s image because of deteriorating environment.

Much has been said about the irresponsible dumping of garbage, wanton cutting of trees, and uncontrolled river siltation, but not much about air pollution. We clean Balili River because it is obviously dirty. We hopelessly look for potential sites for sanitary landfills because it is evident that we spend millions just so we can legally dispose our mixed solid wastes.

But does air pollution warrant our concern? Does it really matter if the air we breathe is polluted or not?

Why bother when the air is moving, and nature has its way of cleansing it? The rain will surely wash the pollutants down or the wind will blow them away. This is the attitude of some of us.

The things that affect our health and environment but cannot be seen by our naked eyes are dangerous. Did we ever think of the kinds of pollutants that we breathe? Did we even think of a scenario that oxygen in canisters and other essential gases for survival will be a lucrative business because air pollution has created such demand?

Reviewing scientific findings

Some of us were bothered about the news that quoted a World Bank study finding Baguio City’s air as the most polluted in the country, with the highest volume of Particulate Matter 10 (PM10).

In 2005, one member of a group of U.S.-based urban planners that conducted a study on the pollution level in the city revealed that “pollution is taking its toll on this city” and that “air quality in Baguio’s central business district – the center of vehicular traffic – is poor. The pollutant measured was PM10 and PM2.5.

In May this year, the World Health Organization reported, although it clarified that it has not ranked cities that “the air quality in most cities worldwide fail to meet WHO guidelines for safe levels, putting people at additional risk for respiratory disease and other health problems.The pollutant measured in the WHO study was PM2.5.

Are these news of our concern?

Monitoring air quality 

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources through its Environmental Management Bureau is the lead agency that enforces Republic Act 8749 or the Clean Air Act of 1999. It implements the Air Quality Management System (AQMS) of the country, including monitoring of air quality.

At the regional level, the air quality is being monitored by the DENR-EMB-CAR.

From 1999 to 2006, the only pollutant being measured at the central business district in urban centers in the region, including Baguio City, was Total Suspended Particulates (TSP). This was so because preparations were still underway then in establishing the country’s AQMS, including procurement of state-of-the-art equipment for monitoring air quality.

TSPs are air contaminant particles that are large or dark enough to be seen. They are from vehicle exhaust emission, smoke from grilling, forest/campfires, woodstove, industrial emission, dusts, and construction activities. 

Records showed that the levels of TSP at the CBD of Baguio City were generally within the “good-to-fair” air quality index. It was, however, observed that the levels were notably high in the summer of 2004, when earth-moving activities within the vicinity of the TSP sampling stations were then inevitable because of a building construction and repair of drainage canals.

It was in 2007 that a Continuous Ambient Air Quality Monitoring Station (CAAQMS) with telemetry system was installed at the CBD to monitor other air pollutants that are considered more harmful to human health than TSPs. 

The CAAQMS was set up at the foot of Session Road because it is the convergence of majority of motor vehicles, a source of pollution; a major route of pedestrians and within the “breathing zone” and it is where economic activities abound. Simply speaking, it was so stationed primarily for the protection of public health.

The CAAQMS measures continuously in an hourly basis, five criteria pollutants in ambient air that are identified, among others, in RA 8749 as those having adverse effects to human health and needing standards on a national basis.

These are Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), and Ozone (O3) – all hazardous gases, and PM10. The law sets the ambient air quality guideline values and standards, which were based on WHO standards.

A monitoring station to measure PM2.5 was established in June this year at Burnham Park. It is under test run for months to ensure stability and accuracy. 

Understanding criteria pollutants

It is important to learn a few information about these pollutants for decision-making that affect policy, programs, and personal safeguard.

NO2 is colorless, odorless, and a reddish-brown toxic gas with a pungent odor; partially responsible for the “brown-haze” observed in cities. Among its sources are motor vehicle exhaust, combustion processes, forest fires, and industrial sources. It is a heat-trapping gas that contributes to global warming. Exposure to high concentrations of NO2 may decrease lung function and could cause formation of fluid in the lungs.

SO2 is a toxic gas with pungent, irritating rotten smell, and reacts easily with other substances to form harmful compounds. Among its sources are emission from motor vehicle combustion and industrial processes. Exposure to high concentrations may cause shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. It is also a precursor to acid rain.

CO is a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas. It is highly toxic, short-lived in the atmosphere, and plays a significant role in the formation of ground level ozone. It comes from exhaust of internal combustion of engines, iron-smelting, incomplete combustion of other various fuels (charcoal, coal, wood, natural gas) forest/bush fires, and burning of crop re-sidues, among other sources. Exposure to high concentrations may cause vomiting, dizziness, and fatal air poisoning.

Ozone or ground level ozone is a colorless and odorless gas, often called “bad ozone,” created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. Exposure to high concentrations of ground level ozone may cause chest pain, asthma, cough, emphysema, throat irritation, and bronchitis.

PM10 are coarse particles (solid or liquid droplets) which are 2.5 to 10 mic-rometers in diameter and 25 to 100 times thinner than human hair. It stays in the air for minutes or hours and can travel a hundred yards. Among its sources are combustion, smoke, pollen, mold, and dust. Exposure to high concentrations of PM10 may cause respiratory health issues and chronic and acute effects on human health.

PM2.5 are fine particles which are 2.5 to less than 10 micrometers in dia-meter, 100 times thinner than human hair, stays in the air for days or weeks, can travel a hundred miles, and can penetrate deeper into the lungs. It is made up of heavy metals and cancer-causing organic compounds. It comes from vehicle smoke emission, burning of garbage, forest fires, and crushing/grinding of rocks and processing of metals. Exposure to high concentrations may lead to shortness of breath, asthma, coughing, decreased lung function, life-long respiratory disease, and cancer.

Analyzing air quality at the CBD

The levels of CO, a highly toxic gas, have not been measured at the CBD from 2010 because of unavoidable factors that hampered the proceedings.

The levels of PM10 were consistently high through time, and failed to meet the guideline values for long-term standard. But on a 24-hour or short-term monitoring, during ordinary days or when times that no events or activities requiring the use of motor vehicles, PM10 levels registered as fair. For O3, levels started to improve in 2011 and 2013 while levels of NO2 and SO2 remain “good” as per air quality index. It could be noted that the CAAQMS faced technical problems in 2012 and failed to measure the levels of other monitored parameters. It is also alarming to note that all pollutants were not monitored in January until August of 2014 because of technical problems. Official actions, though, have been undertaken to facilitate the resolution of this problem.

Alongside monitoring the ambient air within the CBD was the monitoring of the PM10 levels of two areas that are kilometers away from the CBD – at the DENR Compound, Gibraltar, and at the Mile-Hi Center, Camp John Hay. The former is a residential area with minimal economic activities, while the latter is a business area with the impression that it has the least air pollution because it is bedecked with trees. Results of monitoring in previous years revealed that PM10 levels were consistent to be in “good” air quality index. The levels from January to June showed that they maintained “good” air quality. Should results show otherwise, then these will now be a real cause of alarm.

This emphasizes that ambient air quality in Baguio as to PM10 is being monitored in areas where sources of pollution are both high, such as that in the CBD; and low, such as those away from CBD.
What are being done?

There are numerous accounts on the initiatives undertaken by stakeholders about air pollution prevention even before the enactment of RA 8749 in 1999. Sustaining them, however, was the issue.

On Feb. 12, 2003, DENR Administrative Order 2003-04 declared Baguio City, La Trinidad, Itogon, Sablan, Tuba, and Tublay or BLISTT as an airshed and created its governing board. Simply stated, the concept of an airshed is similar with that of a watershed. A watershed is an identified area protected and managed to ensure availability of quality water for consumption. Similarly, an airshed is so declared to make certain that quality air is not only enjoyed by people within the area but also by neighboring towns and regions.

The BLISTT Airshed Governing Board, a multi-stakeholder group led by the DENR and the chief local executives of said local government units which have implemented interventions, continues to review policies and implement planned programs to meet the objectives to improve air quality. It has three technical working groups that meticulously study the issues and concerns of air quality management and recommend for approval to the governing board measures to address these.

The TWGs which meet quarterly, the latest of which was on Aug. 20, has finalized a six-year action plan on, among other things, policy review, procurement of air quality monitoring equipment for the other LGUs concerned, and programs on heightened advocacy strategies.

Realizing what is there to salvage

The number of activities undertaken by stakeholders to maintain and sustain air quality, either collectively or separately, does not run parallel with the number of human activities that negate the initiatives. The perpetual problems on burning solid wastes, increasing number of motor vehicles plying the CBD, erring emission testing centers, lack of essential data, smoke belching, technical problems and maintenance cost of monitoring equipment, and unmonitored area sources, among other concerns, remain. Do we include human behavior as a major problem?

Planting and growing trees, and us being reminded of not “killing” humanity and natural wealth by cutting them irresponsibly are the noblest things we can do. But these are no longer sufficient. We need to walk or bike more, or ride in mass transport to lessen motor vehicle use. Those with private vehicles should take the “carbon diet” – limit carbon emission by observing scheduled trips; those who drive and/or operate public utility vehicles should be aware of the moral obligation to prevent air pollution, which also means good business.

Let’s all act to clean the air. We all claim our right to breathe clean air, but we fail to embrace the responsibility attached to it. A clean and healthy environment is for the good of all and should, therefore, be the concern of all. The issue is not on whether there is left to save or no more, because air is moving. The issue is whether we now have changed perspectives and behavior.

What is there to salvage? It is our moral obligation.

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:: Curing the ills of overdevelopment
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