In a story on npr.org about Minhae Kim, a South Korean citizen and mother of a one year old, the young woman sits on a Yonghan family park bench. She is watching her young one play around happily while watching helplessly from the side. Her child has yet to find out about the dangerous environment she is and will be exposed to for her upbringing. It is spring now and the air pollution levels in Seoul have drastically increased to very unhealthy levels. Why not just stay inside and wait until the air is better? That’s the struggle that Minhae and her fellow countrymen face constantly. There is no better tomorrow. Sure there might be better days but in the big picture, everyday is a day of exposure no matter what. What most of the citizens of South Korea don’t take into account is the immense scale that their poor air quality is on and the dangers of this abundance. In fact, Yale University ranks South Korea near the very bottom of the list of 180 countries for air quality in the Environmental Performance Index. Normal do-good citizens like Minhae and their children are exposed extremely unhealthy levels of pollution every day of their lives. Children and elders are especially vulnerable because of their decreased ability to fight deadly diseases. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, myocardial infarction, lung cancer and asthma symptoms are just a few of the many side effects of long-term exposure to these harmful chemicals. Many South Koreans and their families-just like Minhae and her kid-will most likely experience one of these side effects sometime in their lives with constant exposure.
You might think that the most logical solution to this problem is to stop burning so many fossil fuels and cut down on car emissions but in fact, there might be no solution at all. This is because South Korea has practically no control over their excessive levels of harmful pollution. To get a better understanding of the situation threatening the peninsula, I decided to interview my dad who works as an atmospheric scientist for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), occasionally making trips to South Korean monitoring stations to take samples on air particles and pollution.
When asked about the origin of South Korea’s dangerous pollution levels, he said “The monitoring stations in Seoul have evidence to say that there is foreign pollution in the air. Due to the increased levels of human tracers such as combustion products (CO2, CO, black carbon particles) and sulfur and nitrogen species (eg., SO2, H2SO4, NOx gasses), it is assumed that manmade emissions from China have traveled eastward and have entered South Korea.”
This assumption has caused many South Koreans to point fingers at China for giving them the large burden they are continuously bearing. Of course China most likely has some contribution in the pollution found in South Korea, but a big issue that is utterly inevitable is a natural occurrence. A meteorological phenomenon called the “Asian Dust” (which is %100 confirmed) happens when desert sands from mainland deserts travel east across the sea and many of the particles settle in South Korea. With much experience and knowledge on this phenomenon, my dad had a some input to enhance the specifics of the whole situation.
“It has to do with meteorological conditions,’ he explained. ‘When heavy seasonal winds in the northern hemisphere pass west to east over asian deserts such as the Gobi and Taklamakan in northern and western china, the sand has nothing to hold itself in place and it gets entrained into the air stream which eventually takes it eastward, where some of the heavier particles are deposited in South Korea. When we measure the air particles in western Hawaii, we sometimes find very small asian dust particles that have traveled all the way across the Pacific Ocean.”
This is where the blunt of the problem comes from. During the spring and fall when seasonal winds are the strongest, not only do the man made emissions from big cities like Beijing and Shanghai travel east to South Korea but so do the desert sands from the greater asian deserts. A deadly mixture of pollution is a result of this that has confirmed side effects such as the ones I listed earlier.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Air Quality Index (AQI) there are 6 categories to separate air quality in given countries. It is measured in concentration of PM2.5 particles (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in width) that are very dangerous to the health of the residents of the given area. The 6 groups are ranges of micrograms per cubic meter of air. Zero to 50 is considered “good”, 51-100 is considered “moderate”, 101-150 is considered “unhealthy for sensitive (elderly and children) groups”, 151-200 is considered “unhealthy”, 201-300 is considered “very unhealthy”, and 301-500 is considered “hazardous”.
According to the EPA Air Quality Index, the Yongsan district-the district holding residence to Mrs. Kim and her 1 year old child- had 6 months out of the year (March, April, May, August, October, and December) where the daily maximum micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter repeatedly reached the unhealthy level. According to the same AQI, the whole city of Seoul only had 44 days where PM2.5 concentration was in the “good” range. That is 224 less days in the “good” range than New York City, the most populated city in the United States.
The end to this problem is very complicated and the harsh reality will affect South Koreans and East Asian citizens in general who think the solution is feasible. A big group of South Koreans point fingers at China for their air quality issues and of course there is reasoning behind this given the devastating conditions in Beijing and Shanghai. However, you take Beijing, Shanghai, and any other Chinese cities out of the equation completely and there is still a major problem. As quoted by Dr. Jonathan Samet, an epidemiologist at the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California, “What you have is the combination of what is being generated within Seoul and within the broader, very industrial environment of Korea, added onto by transport of pollution from China.’ ‘So, yes, Koreans can point the finger at China — but you know it has to be pointed internally as well.”
The conclusion is that South Korea has a direct problem that will continue to face them for years to come, especially with the exponentially growing population; a problem that as of now is utterly unsolvable. One could only imagine what the rates of emigration from the smog ridden country will climb to in the coming future.