Lethal inhalation in the Philippines

Posted: 30 January 2003

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

Metro Manila ranks as one of the worst cities in the world for air pollution, posing serious health risks to its citizens and costing the country around US$1.5 billion a year. Henrylito Tacio surveys the problem and reports on the solutions to reduce air pollution in the city to healthy levels.

For more than five years now, Daniel has been driving a jeepney in Pasay City in the Philippines. Recently, he has been coughing hard and is losing weight. In the afternoon, he has mild fever and is sweating at night. One bleak Wednesday, he decided to see a doctor. The diagnosis: he has tuberculosis (TB).

Carlos was a healthy baby when he was growing up in a small town in Davao del Sur in the southern part of the Philippines. When his father was promoted as a manager in a company where he is working, the family moved to Manila. Two years after their arrival in the metropolis, Carlos developed asthma - much to the surprise of his parents.

Daniel and Carlos are just two of the many people living in Metro Manila who have to bear the brunt of air pollution. Studies conducted by the College of Public Health of the University of the Philippines some years ago showed that jeepney drivers are exposed eight to 10 hours daily to pollution. High levels of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and other lung irritants are slowly but unknowingly being inhaled by these transport workers.

Jeepney drivers are not alone. Traffic policemen and metro aides are also susceptible to lung infections due to their exposure to smog and fumes. Aside from catching TB, inhaling the harmful substances from polluted air can cause blood poisoning, headaches, nausea, and blurred vision. Children are not spared. The UP study showed that children who were exposed to high levels of fumes experienced hallucination, headache, dullness, restlessness, irritability, less of memory and ability to concentrate. Some of them also developed asthma like Carlos.

Price of pollution

In terms of lost wages, medical treatment, and premature loss of life, the costs of air pollution to urban residents are staggering - about US$1.5 billion a year or about two per cent of gross domestic product. This means that each person each year spends around P2,000 ($400) for treatment and medication for health-related illnesses brought about by air pollution.

A joint study made by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) a couple of years back identified Metro Manila as one of the 20 cities with more or less 10 million people "where air pollution is posing increasingly serious health problems to its residents."

So, how's the quality of the air in Metro Manila these days? Still very poor, according to the 2002 Philippines Environment Monitor on Air Quality, published by the Manila office of World Bank.

"Air pollution is causing serious health problems and lower productivity, severely impacting the Filipinos' quality of life," deplores Word Bank Country Director to the Philippines, Robert Vance Pulley. "And many residents in Manila are alarmed and want cleaner air."

According to a perception survey conducted in 2001, more than 72 per cent of Manila's residents were alarmed by air pollution and 73 per cent said they were not aware that the government was doing something to control it.

"If you remain unconvinced about how serious the problem is," persuades Pulley, "car owners can try an experiment. "Just tape pieces of 'filtrete' available from hardware stores over the air conditioning vents inside your car. As you watch particulates turn the filter black over a few weeks, think of your lungs - and imagine how much worse it is for the majority who ride in jeepneys or tricycles and can least afford the related health costs."

A survey taken in 1996 showed that Metro Manila residents took over 23 million trips daily, with jeepneys accounting for over 40 per cent of these trips. Eighty per cent of the trips were by public transport, while 20 per cent were made by cars and utility vehicles.

Belching vehicles

The most common forms of air pollutants are suspended particulate matter (SPM), carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons (which include benzene, xylene, and ethylene dibromide), sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and residues of the highly toxic tetraethyl lead, a substance added to gasoline to enhance its octane value or "burning quality."

SPM refers to any tiny solid particle dispersed from pesticides, asbestos and thousands of other products. The most noticeable type of air pollution (since it is readily visible), it often attracts and carries chemicals through the air such as dust-carrying sulfuric acid.

Smoke-belching vehicles have been singled out as the most significant contributor of air pollutants. In 2001, almost four million vehicles were registered in the country. Of these total, 70 per cent were gasoline-fueled and the remaining were diesel-fueled.

In recent years, the number of diesel-powered vehicles has grown rapidly. In fact, they accounted for a third of all vehicles in the country. Of the 1.2 million diesel-fueled, over 65 per cent are considered "high mileage" (utility vehicles, buses, and trucks).

But vehicles are not the only source of air pollution - industries, too. The major types of industry contributing to air pollution are thermal power stations, cement manufacturing plants, and oil refineries.

Most industrial sources are located in the vicinity of Metro Manila. Of the 737 establishments surveyed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), nearly two-thirds do not have the necessary air pollution control facilities.

But that's not all. The air pollution control devices installed in the remaining one-third, according to the DENR, are not operational because "companies believe these are very expensive to operate."

Pollution solution

But there's good news. "Clean air requires patience and sacrifice from all of us," said an official of the environment department. "Our problem with air pollution is very serious. It will take us years before we can bring down the level of pollution in Metro Manila to healthy levels. The good news is that we can still do something about air pollution."

Jitendra Shah, the bank's senior environmental engineer and lead author of the bank report, agrees. "The situation is alarming, but there are solutions to air pollution that have been tried and tested in other Asian cities, which if done here, can yield significant results over a reasonable period of time," he said.

The reduce air pollution, the bank report suggests that the Philippines needs to:

  • Improve commercial vehicle maintenance. Emissions inspection and improving maintenance requirements, particularly for high-use diesel vehicles, along with the government's harmonization of standards for vehicles and fuel is required. Substantial sanctions also need to be enforced for non-compliance.

  • Shift to four-stroke tricycles. The cost of new four-stroke engine motorcycle will be about the same for consumers as one with two-stroke engine. However, the four-stroke versions are much cleaner. The operating cost may be lower as these are more fuel efficient.

  • Requirement manufacturers to install exhaust catalysts for gasoline vehicles. Through revised government standards, exhaust catalysts for gasoline vehicles should be required from the manufacturers. This will add only a fraction to a new vehicle's total cost while drastically reducing carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and oxides of nitrogen.

  • Reduce sulfur in diesel fuel. Sulfur content of automotive diesel is currently 2,000 parts per million (ppm) and the Clean Air Act requires reduction to 500 ppm by 2004 - the norm used by many countries today.

  • Enforce the ban on waste burning in cities. There is an urgent need for local government units to promote waste recycling, composting and sanitary land filling of municipal solid waste along with public education to stop open burning.
The bank report also suggests that the general public can help combat air pollution through everyday measures such as walking, biking, or using public transportation; utilizing energy efficient appliances; using air conditioners wisely; properly inflating car tires to prevent excessive drag; planting trees; and reporting smoke-belching vehicles to the relevant authorities.

"Polluted air knows no barriers and makes no class distinctions - while affecting the poor disproportionately," reminds Pulley. "Although there is no single 'magic formula' to address this problem, determined government policy actions backed by resources and strong public support can yield significant results."

Henrylito D. Tacio is an award-winning environmental journalist and People & the Planet correspondent in The Philippines.