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South Korea’s Difficult Road Ahead to Combat Fine Dust


FILE - Cranes are seen on a polluted day in Incheon, South Korea, May 30, 2016.

South Korea’s initial attempt at countermeasures to end the country’s current fine dust problem failed this week. Officials had sought to create artificial rain to address the current heavy air pollution many in Seoul blame on neighboring China. It’s an issue becoming more and more critical for residents.

Kim Byung-gon, a Professor at Gangneung-Wonju National University Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences told VOA that while fine dust particles from China are part of the problem, it isn’t the only thing causing South Korea’s bad air.

“Fine dust occurs when pollutants emitted from China and internal (South Korean) pollutants stay in the air,” said Kim, who also noted that the exact cause of Seoul’s pollution problem has yet to be fully identified.

Dong Jong-in, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Seoul, said that while domestic factors do affect the overall particulate matter in the air, “fine dust that has flowed from the outside [the country] in the upper air stream is the key factor.”

As a result of continued concern by residents about the on-going increase in bad air quality days, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced that resolving the country’s fine dust problem will be one of the policy tasks his administration will undertake.

Choking on air

For three consecutive days in mid-January, the South Korean government issued alerts to citizens, warning of high levels of micro-dust in the air and urging them to stay inside, or if they had to be outside, to wear masks and keep exposure to a minimum.

During these days, thick, fine dust blanketed most of the country. The pollution was not only visible to the naked eye, but could be felt in the back of one’s throat according to one resident who spoke to South Korea’s Yonhap News.

"The air is so murky and my throat hurts that I even feel depressed. It's as if there is a really thick fog,” the individual said.

Dong Jong-in said the air over the Korean peninsula had been quite dusty for some time. South Korean authorities had monitored overall dust levels and saw some improvement between 2012 and 2013, but since then and the inclusion of PM2.5 particles (ultrafine dust particles that are considered hazardous) in 2015 there has been a marked increase in pollution levels.

“As coal fuel use increases in China, patterns of ultrafine dust rise when west-winds blow. In the past, this was only a problem in winter, but the dusty season has widened to the late autumn and spring,” said Dong.

This is a concern, said Kim Byung-gon, because there are risks that come with increased exposure. “[World Health Organization] studies have indicated that it (ultrafine dust) acts as a primary carcinogen.”

Dong added that the “fine dust affects not only the respiratory system, but also blood vessels, heart, is implicated with brain disease, and dementia… it will also harm children and pregnant women.”

Resolving the problem

Last week, a plane flew into the airspace west of Seoul carrying silver iodide, a chemical that helps water droplets form in clouds. Authorities say it released 24 bursts of the chemical above clouds in hopes of inducing rain.

The Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) said the initial results were “disappointing.”

While the KMA did detect a weak, misty rain for several minutes, "there was no observation of significant precipitation.”

"Aside from its success or failure, the test was an opportunity to accumulate the necessary technology for faster commercialization of cloud seeding," the KMA added.

The agency is expected to release a full report next month and to carry out 14 more tests this year in hopes of perfecting the technology by 2024.

Kim Byung-gon said the government’s plan does have some merit, since several countries around the globe employ such tactics.

However, “Artificial rainfall itself is difficult,” Kim said, “a sufficient amount of rain should be falling to wash away the dust… I do not think it will be easy.”

He added that utilizing cleaner fuel, reducing automobile emission pollutants, and addressing factory pollutants must also be part of any solution to the problem at hand.

Lee Ju-Hyun contributed to this report.

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    Steve Miller

    Steve Miller is a veteran broadcast journalist with over a decade of experience. Much of that time he covered the Asia-Pacific region while living in South Korea. During Steve's time in Asia, he explored the region's rich history and culture (and not to mention food) while reporting on geopolitics, human rights, and tourism.

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