The air we breathe


Southeast Asia Globe - - Feature - BY JANELLE RETKA

Thiv Sop­hearith stands on top of the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment build­ing with the sun beam­ing down on him. The sky is clear, aside from a thin veil of smog hov­er­ing low against the sky­line.

“You can see a lot of con­struc­tion sites, so [these de­vel­op­ments] can cause the PM2.5 to be a lit­tle bit high here,” he says, pointing to a clus­ter of scaf­fold­ing-wrapped de­vel­op­ments where sparks fly from saws and drills.

As chief of the min­istry's Air Qual­ity, Noise and Vi­bra­tion Of­fice, Sop­hearith has spent just over a year mon­i­tor­ing Ph­nom Penh's lev­els of PM2.5, the most da­m­ag­ing air pol­lu­tant to hu­man health, which ex­ists as tiny par­ti­cles cre­ated from dust and burn­ing fos­sil fu­els. These par­ti­cles can con­trib­ute to heart dis­ease, strokes and lung ill­nesses such as can­cer and em­phy­sema.

The de­vice that col­lects the data ar­rived in April last year and lives be­side two acidic de­po­si­tion pol­lu­tion mon­i­tors on the roof of the min­istry build­ing, from which the Tonle Sap river is not much more than a coin toss away. Be­fore this ma­chine, there was no of­fi­cially recog­nised mon­i­tor of the cap­i­tal city's PM2.5 air pol­lu­tion, leav­ing the is­sue a mys­tery to all.

“Thirty-one,” says Sop­hearith, peer­ing into a metal cup­board in the cen­tre of the rooftop to read the de­vice's mon­i­tor. This is the most re­cent hourly mea­sure­ment of the num­ber of mi­cro­grams of PM2.5 par­ti­cles per cu­bic me­tre of air – above the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion's (WHO) rec­om­mended level of 25. A pole shoot­ing up from the cab­i­net ab­sorbs the par­ti­cles and quickly cal­cu­lates the av­er­age amount ev­ery hour, which is then added up to find a monthly av­er­age for govern­ment records.

In March, the av­er­age rate was 29, Sop­hearith says – well above any of the av­er­age rates of the nine months mea­sured last year, which jumped around be­tween lev­els as low as 9.9 and as high as 19.8. “This level is not a high level,” he in­sists of the 31 read­ing.

Ph­nom Penh has seen worse. Data from an­other Ph­nom Penh PM2.5 mon­i­tor, at the Olympic Sta­dium about a ten-minute drive away, tracked by global air pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing plat­form AirVisual, shows a morn­ing in early April when the level sky­rock­eted to 111.

Generally speak­ing, these mon­i­tors should be pick­ing up sim­i­lar if not the same rates of PM2.5, ac­cord­ing to Yann Bo­quil­lod, a Beijing-based data sci­en­tist and founder of AirVisual.

Com­par­a­tively, the na­tion's an­nual records aren't bad. AirVisual data from 2017 places Ph­nom Penh's av­er­age an­nual air qual­ity as much better than Hanoi and Beijing's – with a PM2.5 level of 27.4 in Cam­bo­dia's cap­i­tal com­pared to 42.6 in the Viet­namese cap­i­tal and 52.7 in China's. Still, in the more de­vel­oped ur­ban cen­tre of Paris, PM2.5 hov­ered just over 15.

Also, be­cause of unchecked burn­ing prac­tices in Ph­nom Penh, from a house­hold garbage pile to a farmer's crop to a land­fill, lo­calised pol­lu­tion peaks are com­mon, leav­ing in­di­vid­u­als' health at se­ri­ous risk.

“The [av­er­age] level in Ph­nom Penh for a year… is above WHO [rec­om­men­da­tions], so it means you are def­i­nitely los­ing some years of your life, months of your life,” says Bo­quil­lod. “How much is not re­ally known, but it's hav­ing an im­pact on your life.”

The WHO at­tributes 20,400 deaths in Cam­bo­dia in 2012 to air pol­lu­tion, with 11,400 caused by out­door pol­lu­tants. The par­ti­cles con­tribut­ing to this pol­lu­tion in­clude ozone, lead and PM2.5, as well as car­bon monox­ide (CO), ni­tro­gen diox­ide (NO2) and sul­phur diox­ide (SO2), with the lat­ter three hav­ing been mon­i­tored by the govern­ment since the turn of the cen­tury.

“The ma­jor air pol­lu­tion that we are con­cerned about is PM2.5, be­cause it can cause prob­lems for hu­mans,” says Sop­hearith. “If we breathe it in, it will cause health ef­fects, can­cer. First, it can make a sore throat and then if we breathe deeper and deeper… the prob­lem is more se­ri­ous.”

A key is­sue with PM2.5 is that these tiny par­ti­cles travel eas­ily – across coun­try bor­ders and cities, deep down in the lungs. Heart dis­ease, stroke and lung ill­nesses are a com­mon con­se­quence.

The WHO's rec­om­mended coun­try in­ter­ven­tions for Cam­bo­dia in­clude public trans­port so­lu­tions, solid waste man­age­ment, house­hold ac­cess to clean fu­els and cook­ing stoves, and the devel­op­ment of mar­kets for re­new­able en­ergy.

Al­ter­na­tives to harm­ful gas, oil and coal en­ergy in Cam­bo­dia are prov­ing elu­sive. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port pub­lished by Kohe Hasan, a part­ner at Reed Smith law firm who has done ex­ten­sive re­search on re­new­able en­ergy in the King­dom, a lack of in­cen­tives and clear guide­lines laid out by the govern­ment pre­vents po­ten­tial solar en­ergy in­vestors from en­ter­ing the mar­ket in a coun­try with ample solar po­ten­tial.

Sop­hearith has some rec­om­men­da­tions for in­di­vid­u­als to pro­tect them­selves against pol­lu­tion: those liv­ing or work­ing along road­sides should wear masks; and motorbike driv­ers should avoid peak traf­fic hours.

“We con­ducted an air pol­lu­tion emis­sion in­ven­tory in Ph­nom Penh city in 2015,” Sop­hearith says. “We found that the big source of air pol­lu­tion… came from trans­porta­tion.”

Since then, he has made rec­om­men­da­tions to city hall to try to im­prove traf­fic con­ges­tion: im­prove traf­fic plan­ning in the fu­ture to avoid traf­fic jams. He also says he wants to work

If we breathe PM2.5 in, it will cause health ef­fects, can­cer. First, it can make a sore throat and then if we breathe deeper and deeper the prob­lem is more se­ri­ous

more with the Min­istry of Public Works and Trans­port to dis­cuss en­forc­ing emis­sions test­ing for cars and mo­tor­bikes. Ad­di­tion­ally, he wants to see reg­u­la­tions on sec­ond­hand ve­hi­cle im­ports, but said it's still un­clear how this should be de­cided: “It could be based on the year it's pro­duced or based on the qual­ity of the en­gine and also emis­sions.”

Sop­hearith sees other con­tribut­ing fac­tors, like rub­bish and crop burn­ing, as in­evitable. Land­fills and crop fields are far from the city, he rea­sons, so they're not prob­lem­atic. But in prac­ti­cally the same breath, he notes how far PM2.5 par­ti­cles can travel, even from other coun­tries, like Thai­land and Viet­nam.

While Bo­quil­lod says govern­ment reg­u­la­tion is key to cut­ting pol­lu­tion, he adds that public aware­ness and en­gage­ment is also fun­da­men­tal.

“Out of cu­rios­ity, do you know why the govern­ment is not pub­lish­ing their mon­i­tor's data?” he asks in an email.

In Beijing, where he's based, Bo­quil­lod points out that great change has been cre­ated in air qual­ity in the past 15 years due to public pres­sure and en­thu­si­as­tic govern­ment re­sponse.

“If there is no aware­ness, like you prob­a­bly have in Ph­nom Penh, things are not go­ing to change. I can pretty much tell you that in Shanghai, aware­ness is pretty low, so peo­ple haven't been push­ing and the govern­ment didn't see any rea­son to make changes,” he says. “In Beijing, it's a to­tally dif­fer­ent story. Peo­ple have been keeping up high pres­sure and the govern­ment has had to make changes. That's why they've closed so many fac­to­ries, power plants, coal-fired power plants and so on. Peo­ple are not al­lowed to burn coal in their house [for] their heat­ing.”

China has cut its PM2.5 lev­els by an av­er­age of 32% in the past four years, which could ex­tend life ex­pectancy by 2.4 years com­pared to 2013's av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study by the Univer­sity of Chicago in the US.

Look­ing for­ward, Bo­quil­lod says it's hard to pre­dict whether Ph­nom Penh's pol­lu­tion will get better or worse – es­pe­cially if the govern­ment doesn't have plans for tight reg­u­la­tions or to make the public aware of the sever­ity of the prob­lem. “If they're not, it's prob­a­bly just go­ing to in­crease,” he says.

Sop­hearith, for his part, says his de­part­ment is keeping tabs on pol­lu­tion lev­els and there's no need to alert the public to the cur­rent rates.

“This level is not a high [enough] level that we need to alert or any­thing like that,” he says. He aims to con­tinue learn­ing more about Ph­nom Penh pol­lu­tion lev­els as he at­tempts to halt their es­ca­la­tion – hav­ing just fin­ished mon­i­tor­ing PM2.5 for a year, the min­istry will now have com­par­a­tive data mov­ing for­ward. One day, says Sop­hearith, he hopes to get the fund­ing to buy four more PM2.5 mon­i­tors to scat­ter through­out the city.

“Maybe in the fu­ture [we] will mon­i­tor ozone as well,” he sug­gests.

For now, Sop­hearith's vis­its to the rooftop mon­i­tor a few floors above his of­fice will have to suf­fice.

Cam­bo­dian mo­torists rid­ing their mo­tor­bikes through dusty streets on the out­skirts of Ph­nom PenhPh­nom Penh traf­fic at peak hour. The Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment's Thiv Sop­hearith rec­om­mends com­muters avoid driv­ing mo­tor­bikes when traf­fic is busiest

A Cam­bo­dian woman burn­ing rub­bish. Lack of solid waste man­age­ment is a ma­jor prob­lem for the de­vel­op­ing coun­try and its en­vi­ron­ment

Smoke from burn­ing trash fires swirls around a Cam­bo­dian boy as he scav­enges a dump on the out­skirts of Ph­nom Penh

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