The smoke and soot that commuters inhale daily are often overlooked and taken for granted. But think about it: just how much of this gray air has accumulated in Filipino lungs?
The Philippines ranks third in Asia’s mortality rate caused by air pollution, after China and Mongolia. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 120,000 Filipinos lives are lost annually due to air pollution and fossil fuel burning, which aggravate lung problems, cardiac arrest, and cancer. Transportation vehicles take the majority of blame for such pollution: the National Emissions Inventory, compiled by the Department of ENvironment and Natural Resources (DENR) indicates that emissions from mobile sources contribute 71 percent, more than two-thirds, of the total emissions of the country in 2018.
It is no wonder that emissions from transportation vehicles have spiked from 54 percent in 2002, as the Land Transportation Office reports that 11.5 million vehicles have been registered nationwide in 2018, with 2.7 million in the metro. At the beginning of the 2000s, there had only been 3.7 million vehicles registered nationwide, with only 1.2 million in NCR.
Vehicles on the road belch black carbon, a mix of solid and liquid particles referred to as particulate matter (PM) and a by-product of incomplete combustion in gas and diesel engines. In 2018, the Environmental Pollution Studies Laboratory (EPSL) at the University of the Philippines discovered that the highest concentrations of PM are built up during the daily rush hours, i.e. between 7 and 9 in the morning and between 8 and 9 in the evening. Specifically, these alarming concentrations were recorded in monitoring stations at the roadsides of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila (UST), Muñoz in Caloocan City, the Lung Center of the Philippines in Quezon City, and Ayala Avenue in Makati City. Additionally, the study determined that Thursdays and Fridays recorded the highest concentrations of PM within a week.
Naturally, at most risk are those who cannot afford adequate ventilation in their homes, those who wait on the roadside for jeepneys and buses, and those who are tasked to be on the road all day. Recently, researchers from UP Manila’s Institutes of Health assessed 100 MMDA officers and reported that black carbon and heavy metals from vehicle emissions affected their lung functions and blood pressure.
Nonetheless, there has been no public clamor for reform. According to Khevin Yu, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, bikers, pedestrians, and commuters won’t complain on issues that they can tolerate easily, at least at first. But in addition to all the health ailments discussed previously, black carbon is a potential factor of global warming, since it can absorb solar energy and convert it to heat, as stated by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.
So while there have been many complaints about all the bad effects of air pollution, not much is being done to directly address this growing problem. Presently, the lack of transportation alternatives makes the transformation of EDSA into a parking lot inevitable: with the decline of public transportation services, people are opting to drive their own cars, thereby maximizing the amount of pollution in the metro.
The rainy season only brings a quick release from the adverse effects of pollution. Downpours may wash the world anew; but cars pile up on the road and a gray blanket of smoke always rises up, clouding the metro once again.