Another One Bites the (Yellow) Dust: Coping with Seoul's Air Quality
Updated: Mar 29, 2019
Lame attempts at Queen puns aside, this week I'm particularly feeling the side effects of all the dust lately, and wanted to share some info for my family and friends back home who usually wonder how I'm coping. I never thought clean air was something that I'd unknowingly take for granted. It think it's important to share that in many areas of Asia, generations of families out here have had to grow up in a different environment that many of us are privileged to have come from. Our environmental choices actually can and do negatively affect the lives of others, so let's try our best to be mindful on our consumption and waste habits.
I LOVE Korea, and my hope is that anyone who hasn't visited this amazing country still consider adding it to their bucket-list. Hopefully this post, shares some light on the issues. And to all my friends sticking it out here, I hope your focus remains on the good days. I mention ideas on how to cope both practical (and impractical) below. :)
What is Yellow Dust/Fine Dust Exactly?
These tiny particles in the air go by many names such as yellow dust, asian dust, or PM2.5. The dust is a form of pollution that comes from the exhausts of cars, along from emissions from power plants and other manufacturing buildings. It still amazes me that for the first few months of living in Korea, I thought I'd walk out to ordinary foggy or hazy days without knowing that it was the effects of an especially dusty day.
Where Does It Come From?
Many Koreans you ask will tell you that most of the dust comes from China. This is true, in fact, China is one of the bigger culprits, but it also comes from the deserts of Mongolia and even parts of Kazakhstan whenever there are wind and dust storms strong enough to blow the particles to Korea. Again, the fine dust originates from man made sources.
Every day I'll ask my students, "How's the weather today?" and it is a little sad to hear them say "It's dusty!" more frequently. Many of my students do come to class with masks on. Though sad, I am happy to see that Korea can provide masks for even babies. However, a surprising amount of Koreans don't bother wearing masks. Plenty of times I'll witness people young and old going about their everyday business, including exercising or sitting outside on bad days. When I asked my co-teacher she mentioned that wearing the masks all the time are simply a pain, and uncomfortable. Sometimes it's a simple as just forgetting to grab one for the day. Regardless of their personal choices, the subject of fine dust is still upsetting for Koreans. Many of my co-teachers and students have mentioned that they are noticing that the levels seem to be growing worse year after year.
When Is Fine Dust Most Prevalent?
Typically fine dust has been an issue during transition months around fall and spring. However, it has become more frequent and seems to come and go almost every month lately.
Coming from the U.S. where I never bothered to think about the air quality, it's impossible to ignore the quality here when I feel the effects almost immediately. I don't get side effects all the time, but here are some of the things I'll begin to feel on an especially bad day.
-Shortness of Breath
Long Term -Health Risks
One of the craziest things I find from this pollution, is that once one breathes in the fine dust, it will permanently remain in the body. If we're looking at the glass half full, it's hard to see how limited exposure could do severe long-term damage, so there's that at least. An obvious issue that can arise after years of exposure is the development of respiratory complications. There have been links made to other complications such as cardiovascular and neurological as well. Again, not the most comforting, but if you're someone thinking of visiting or teaching in Korea, my hope is that you will feel better prepared and empowered before arriving, not deterred.
What Can You Do About It?
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, there won't be much you can do about the dust other than learning how to manage living with it. (Of course you could move away from Korea if you really wanted.)
Below are some resources and ideas for measures you can take during especially dusty times.
Tune In With Apps (Or a quick google search)
Again, while there might not be much you can do, you can at least keep track of dust levels before heading out each day. I never thought 'd have to check the dust levels like I do the weather every day, but you get used to it.
I currently use the 미세 미세 app after my co-teachers recommended it for it's straight forward use. You don't need to speak Korean to understand the various degrees of a smiley face.
Sadly, More days than not lately, the app has been pulling up the last two images. When you see black it's best to stay inside until it passes, but it's not always realistic or practical to do so.
Though not 100% full proof, there are many pharmacies, grocery stores, department stores etc. that sell masks to shield yourself from the the fine dust. You can even buy them online on GMarket and sometimes even Amazon. Before coming to Korea Jd bought me a box of disposable masks that I still have on hand. There are varying levels of masks available depending on how serious you're feeling about the dust. It's recommended that when in search of a mask that it is at least a N95 level or higher. It's also important that the masks fit your face in an airtight way.
There are plants in Korea I've found that help with slight air purification. Again not a full proof way to remove the hazard, but still a nice thing to have. In my classroom, my co-teachers purchased about 5 smaller plants as a small measure.
Reduce Outdoor Exposure
School or companies, to my knowledge, have never closed down because of a particularly dusty day. The city functions as it always does on any given day. The Seoul Government does however, mandate that only certain cars depending on the license plate number be allowed to drive on especially bad days. On days when the dust is bad, it was suggested to me that I just keep any activities planned remain indoors if possible. There was one time I went to IKEA unknowingly without a mask on one of the worst days in Seoul; I've never felt my lungs and eyes burn as bad as they did in a matter of minutes. Luckily I haven't experienced that since, but it was a scary feeling. Here are some ideas of what to do on days when you're feeling cooped up. If you're up to it, you can travel to nearby indoor destinations. Otherwise, just open yourself to the fun opportunities available at home.
-Go to a board-game cafe. (Uno anyone?)
-Grab some friends and catch a movie either at CGV
-Get your netflix binge on
-Shopping! You can even shop underground if you're really concerned ;)
-Read a favorite book
-Spend time cooking something fun
-Light indoor exercise
-Finally get to the laundry and dishes you've been avoiding
-Get lost in the black hole that is YouTube or Instagram
-Find new music or catch up on podcasts
I was told it's important to air out the apartment when possible, and wipe any dust build up found inside. Taking a shower after being outside was something I never thought of but was also suggested to me. There are also air purifiers people can buy, and while I don't own one, I'm glad my classroom at least has one.
Take a Hike
When you can, opt outside and go out of the city to enjoy some fresh air and a hike! Korea is full of beautiful mountains waiting to be climbed. I recently when out to the city of Sokcho, east of Seoul to visit the National Park and could've cried I was so happy.
Curate a Playlist To Get You Through The Times
With a "If you can't beat it mentality" make light-hearted on the situation and start listening to the following jams on your commute to school or en route anywhere in Seoul:
-Another One Bites the Dust by Queen
-No Air by Chris Brown, Jordan Sparks
-Dirt Off Your Shoulder - Jay Z
-Breathe Me by Sia
-Dust by Frank Ocean
-Air by Shawn Mendes
-Fresh Air by Zayn Malik
Hope for the Future
Here's some good news from the Korea Herald in a recent article by Ock Hyun-ju, "A total of 30 million trees will be planted in Seoul by 2022 and two large forests will be formed as part of efforts to mitigate worsening air pollution and urban heat, the Seoul Metropolitan Government announced Tuesday. Thirty million trees would have the effect of reducing particulate pollution generated by 64,000 aged diesel cars per year, and producing oxygen equivalent to the amount that 21 million adults inhale per year, the city said."
There really are an abundance of awesome outdoor spaces in Seoul, and I'm happy to see that those won't be going away anytime soon.
Thank you for taking the time to read this! Again, this post isn't meant to instil fear in anyone thinking about moving here, but rather I wanted to bring to light some information about this place and get the wheels turning on some of the larger environmental issues we're facing.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions, comments, concerns etc. :)
Korean Herald: Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org) for article quotes
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