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South Korea Has a Long Road On Its Way To Combat Fine Dust

"Artificial rainfall itself is difficult,” Kim said, “a sufficient amount of rain should be falling to wash away the dust… I do not think it will be easy.”

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South Korea, Fine DUst
Smoke rises from a chimney in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, September 7, 2018. Picture taken September 7, 2018. VOA

South Korea’s initial attempt at countermeasures to end the country’s current fine dust problem failed this week. Officials had sought to create artificial rain to address the current heavy air pollution many in Seoul blame on neighboring China. It’s an issue becoming more and more critical for residents.

Kim Byung-gon, a Professor at Gangneung-Wonju National University Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences told VOA that while fine dust particles from China are part of the problem, it isn’t the only thing causing South Korea’s bad air.

“Fine dust occurs when pollutants emitted from China and internal (South Korean) pollutants stay in the air,” said Kim, who also noted that the exact cause of Seoul’s pollution problem has yet to be fully identified.

Dong Jong-in, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Seoul, said that while domestic factors do affect the overall particulate matter in the air, “fine dust that has flowed from the outside [the country] in the upper air stream is the key factor.”

 

Korea
A train transporting dozens of South Korean officials runs on the rails which leads to North Korea, inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea. VOA

 

As a result of continued concern by residents about the on-going increase in bad air quality days, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has announced that resolving the country’s fine dust problem will be one of the policy tasks his administration will undertake.

Choking on air

For three consecutive days in mid-January, the South Korean government issued alerts to citizens, warning of high levels of micro-dust in the air and urging them to stay inside, or if they had to be outside, to wear masks and keep exposure to a minimum.

During these days, thick, fine dust blanketed most of the country. The pollution was not only visible to the naked eye, but could be felt in the back of one’s throat according to one resident who spoke to South Korea’s Yonhap News.

“The air is so murky and my throat hurts that I even feel depressed. It’s as if there is a really thick fog,” the individual said.

Dong Jong-in said the air over the Korean peninsula had been quite dusty for some time. South Korean authorities had monitored overall dust levels and saw some improvement between 2012 and 2013, but since then and the inclusion of PM2.5 particles (ultrafine dust particles that are considered hazardous) in 2015 there has been a marked increase in pollution levels.

FILE - Protesters attend an anti-THAAD protest in Seongju, South Korea. ​THAAD
FILE – Protesters attend an anti-THAAD protest in Seongju, South Korea.
​THAAD

“As coal fuel use increases in China, patterns of ultrafine dust rise when west-winds blow. In the past, this was only a problem in winter, but the dusty season has widened to the late autumn and spring,” said Dong.

This is a concern, said Kim Byung-gon, because there are risks that come with increased exposure. “[World Health Organization] studies have indicated that it (ultrafine dust) acts as a primary carcinogen.”

Dong added that the “fine dust affects not only the respiratory system, but also blood vessels, heart, is implicated with brain disease, and dementia… it will also harm children and pregnant women.”

Resolving the problem

Last week, a plane flew into the airspace west of Seoul carrying silver iodide, a chemical that helps water droplets form in clouds. Authorities say it released 24 bursts of the chemical above clouds in hopes of inducing rain.

The Korea Meteorological Administration (KMA) said the initial results were “disappointing.”

While the KMA did detect a weak, misty rain for several minutes, “there was no observation of significant precipitation.”

“Aside from its success or failure, the test was an opportunity to accumulate the necessary technology for faster commercialization of cloud seeding,” the KMA added.

North Korea, South Korea
An explosion is part of the dismantling of a South Korean guard post in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas in Cheorwon, Nov. 15, 2018. Relations between the Koreas have improved this year, with the North entering disarmament talks with a vague promise to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. VOA

The agency is expected to release a full report next month and to carry out 14 more tests this year in hopes of perfecting the technology by 2024.

Kim Byung-gon said the government’s plan does have some merit, since several countries around the globe employ such tactics.

Also Read: South Korea Confirms First Case of MERS Since 2015

However, “Artificial rainfall itself is difficult,” Kim said, “a sufficient amount of rain should be falling to wash away the dust… I do not think it will be easy.”

He added that utilizing cleaner fuel, reducing automobile emission pollutants, and addressing factory pollutants must also be part of any solution to the problem at hand. (VOA)

Next Story

New Strain of Plastic-Eating Bacteria Found

German Scientists Identify New Strain of Plastic-eating Bacteria

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Plastic
Plastic and other garbage floats in a collector of a new device that uses a curtain of tiny air bubbles to catch plastic floating in the capital's canals is seen in Amsterdam, Netherlands. VOA

By Zlatica Hoke

German scientists say they have identified a strain of bacteria that is feeding on polyurethanes, a plastic resistant to biodegradation. This is an environment news.

A team of researchers at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, has found that a strain of soil bacterium, identified as Pseudomonas putida, can produce enzymes to digest polyurethanes thus making it biodegradable.

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The German team says the bacterium found in the soil surrounding a heap of polyurethane waste was feeding on polyurethane diol, which is used in plastic as a component that protects products from corrosion.

Plastic
A worker sorts through recycling bins at a centre that offers residents money in exchange of their recyclable garbage in an attempt to keep the streets clean in Cairo, Egypt. VOA

Hermann Heipieper, one of the researchers and author of the study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, said “this finding represents an important step in being able to reuse hard-to-recycle (polyurethane) products.”

The study offers hope of ridding the planet of the growing quantities of discarded plastics’ products that threaten human and animal life. But some scientists are skeptical.

In earlier experiments, biodegradation of some plastics components was achieved with fungi. Yale University students in 2011 discovered a fungus that can digest and break down polyurethane plastic even in a place without air – like the bottom of a landfill. Since then scientists around the world have identified other fungal species that can breakdown polyurethane. In 2017, a team of scientists identified another fungus that can feed on plastic by breaking down chemicals that hold it together.

These studies also raised concerns about the ability of micro-organisms to invade and corrupt a dead and therefore sterile substance like plastic. Research on coral reefs has shown that floating plastics carry disease-causing microbes that infect the coral.

The Leipzig study says bacteria are much easier to control and produce for industrial use. Its authors say the next step is to identify the gene code of the enzymes produced by the bacteria to digest polyurethane.

Some scientists are arguing against introducing man-made enzymes or potentially dangerous micro-organisms into the natural environment.

Two years ago, scientist Douglas Rader wrote in an op-ed for the Environmental Defense Fund that “There is so much more we need to understand about the complex relationships between plastics and marine ecosystems before we can take drastic action such as spraying the ocean with so-called plastic-eating bacteria.”

Plastic
Workers load collected plastic bottles on to a truck at a junk shop in Manila. VOA

Despite new findings, science is nowhere near solving the growing plastics pollution problem. Humankind has manufactured and discarded so much plastics over the years that the world is getting short of places to dump the enormous quantities accumulated every day. Refusal by many developing countries to accept plastic waste from rich nations has exacerbated the problem.

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Some countries are cutting down on the use of plastics bags, drinking straws, bottles and utensils. Scientists keep coming up with new biodegradable products to replace plastic, such as wrapping materials made from algae, straws made of paper and disposable utensils made of bamboo, but the movement could be described as “too little too late.” Recycling the plastics to make building materials, fabrics, and other new plastic products cannot even make a dent in the growing amounts of plastics waste.

Also Read- India’s Lockdown Disrupts Functioning of Amazon and Flipkart

Plastic remains the most practical packaging material and is indispensable in medical, pharmaceutical, sanitary and many other industries. Some new biodegradable, but equally useful material, has yet to be developed.

Meanwhile scientists estimate that about 8 million pieces of plastics enter the oceans every day. For some of them it will take hundreds of years to properly degrade if they are not first swallowed by fish and other marine creatures that will die from it. (VOA)