A Cocktail of Toxins
Yellow dust, or hwangsa as it is called in Korea, is inhalable particles that are a mixture of pollutants and sand. Naturally occurring seasonal flora particles like pollen are also added to the mix, causing issues for those with seasonal allergies or severe asthma. In early spring, yellow dust storms develop in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and northern China, and high-speed winds carry it throughout China into the Korean peninsula. The dust doesn’t stop there, as winds can carry these dust clouds all the way to the Americas to the point of affecting visibility. The rise of the deforestation and industrial pollutants has made this yearly occurrence a health crisis especially to those with weakened immune systems.
Korea ranked 173rd out of 180 for air quality in Yale University’s latest 180-country Environmental Performance Index. Carcinogens as well as viruses, bacteria, fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, herbicides, plastic ingredients, combustion products as well as hormone mimicking phthalates have been found in these dust storms worldwide. Though scientists have known that intercontinental dust storms can ferry bacteria and viruses, microbiologist Dale W. Griffin with the USGS in St. Petersburg said, “most people had assumed that the [sun’s] ultraviolet light would sterilize these clouds. We now find that isn’t true.”
China and Mongolia are not all to blame, as data shows that coal plants within Korea itself are not helping the situation. Last year, teams of scientists sponsored by NASA and Korea’s National Institute of Environmental Research did a six-week project that showed that the dust pollutants also originated from the peninsula itself. “By being able to go over the adjacent water and then over the [Korean] peninsula, we can begin to do a much easier job of separating external influences from internal sources in the continent,” says Jim Crawford, a NASA mission scientist on the project. South Korea’s reliance on coal plants and diesel fuel for its vehicles contributes to local pollution. About 50 coal plants already help power the country, and Korea has pledged to build a dozen more by 2021.
What can you do?
Pollutants Levels: Air Korea, a website with real-time information, gives us the current levels. You can find them at www.airkorea.or.kr/eng/real/re… Phone Apps like Yellow Dust are the most non-Korean friendly, though I stick with Air Korea.
Medicine: Ahn Kang-mo, a pediatrician at Samsung Medical Center, offers us some advice. To relieve congestion in the nasal mucosa, vasoconstrictor nasal sprays can be used. Cromolyn sodium sprays can be used for prevention. Immune-modulator injections can also be used but require a long-term treatment of 3-5 years.
Stay Clean: Wash your face and hands and brush your teeth as frequently as possible and drink plenty of water to prevent skin dehydration and excrete impurities from the body. Eat plenty of healthy food with immune boosting vitamins. If possible, avoid wearing contact lenses and opt for glasses instead. Clothes need to be washed immediately after returning from work and school and avoid walking in the rain. Keeping the air quality clean indoors is also important, and to those who are super-sensitive, make sure to cover any cracks in windows and doors.
Masks: Masks will help as long as they are the correct one. Do not use cloth masks as they lose their potency once washed. Yellow dust masks (황사마스크) are available in many shapes, sizes, and filter grades across Korea. They can be found at pharmacies or bought in bulk on Gmarket or Coupang.
The US-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) gives masks the N95 rating for being able to filter out 95% of particulate matter. KF (Korea Filter) masks more closely adhere with the European Standard rating system. KF80 masks are equivalent to P1 filtration and filter out 80% of particulate matter. KF94 masks are equivalent to P2 filtration and filter out 94% of particulate matter. KF99 masks are equivalent to P3 filtration and filter out 99% of particulate matter.
Advocacy: For those looking at advocacy, even if it just means passing along information to your students, there is a great youth-focused corps that focuses on re-planting in China. Future Forest is a non-governmental organization based in Korea, which was established in 2001. Their Great Green Wall, a 16 km-long windbreak forest in the Kubuqi desert in Inner Mongolia, China is said as one of the most successful projects in fighting desertification.
Air Quality – Environmental Performance Index
Air Pollution’s Hazy Future in South Korea
Ill Winds by Janet Raloff
Korea’s Air Is Dirty, But It’s Not All Close-Neighbor China’s Fault
Diseases associated with yellow dust
Yellow Dust Masks
Future Forest Homepage
Written by Alex A-Che