This should be one of the best times of the year, with balmy breezes, bright sunlight and clean air enlivening nature and humankind alike. On the contrary, we have been met this past week with a gray, dense cloud of fine dust that depressingly blanketed the whole country. Worse news is that we now have to brace for the seasonal onslaught of yellow dust from our western neighbors.
The storms of fine dust containing toxic pollutants including heavy metals and other carcinogens were so severe throughout the past week that familiarity with technical terms such as PM2.5, microns and micrograms was not necessary to understand how bad the situation was.
Many choked under the dense pall of smog, complaining of sore throats and irritated eyes. Health authorities and environmental experts were busy warning about the short-term and long-term health dangers. It is frightening to learn that the fine dust can easily enter deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream to cause or exacerbate cardiac and respiratory problems.
The thick clouds of fine, dry particles had a negative impact on the economy as well. They drastically decreased visibility, disrupting, among other things, air travel. Cancellation or delay of flights or interference with other means of transportation and the hard-to-measure impact on businesses like semiconductor plants show that the health of the national economy is at stake too.
On top of the hazards to public health and the national economy, the thick dust clouds hanging in the air day after day clogged even the vitality in the national psyche that is normally felt in the spring. That a Seoul City official called the attack of fine dust a “natural disaster” does not sound like much of an exaggeration.
If we are dealing with a problem on the level of a disaster, we need comprehensive measures. A big part of the measures should involve China, because much of the fine dust and yellow dust comes from there. But there are some things we can do first. We need, for instance, more electric, hybrid cars on our roads and enforcement of strict emissions regulations.
Scientific research into the phenomenon should be elevated to the status of a major national project. That the authorities’ forecasts of fine dust levels are only accurate about 30 percent of the time attests to our shortage of scientific resources. Government agencies and experts should join forces to study the origins, components and movements of the dust storms and work out effective countermeasures.
Then comes the next, far more important task: Working with China to battle what has become a regional environmental menace.
The Korean government should be more active and demanding in seeking cooperation or, if necessary, putting pressure on the Chinese authorities. We need more data and information regarding dust storms originating from China.
In this context, it was encouraging to hear that Environment Minister Yoon Seong-kyu suggested a joint development of a dust storm forecasting model with China. Yoon’s remarks increase our hope that South Korea and China, along with Japan, will be able to work out effective joint measures.
We hope to observe their determination when officials from the three governments get together in Beijing next month for a “policy dialogue on air pollution.” The meeting and the environment ministers’ conference scheduled in the following month should become an occasion for the three countries to declare a “war” on dust storms in Northeast Asia. That is what governments ought to do, beyond advising people to refrain from outdoor activities.