By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Yellow dust storm carries Chinese pollutants to Korea

by in Environment.

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Two people sit before the Seoul city skyline during heavily polluted weather on Feb.23, 2015.ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, South Korea’s meteorological service issued the year’s first yellow dust warnings for several of its major cities, calling for people to remain indoors and use masks and goggles when outside. The yellow dust comes from deserts in western China and southern Mongolia, and then becomes toxic as it passes through China’s heavily-polluting industrial areas to the east before drifting over Korea and Japan.

Exposure to high levels of “PM-10” pollutants (particles that are 10 micrometers or less in diameter) increases the likelihood of developing cardiac and respiratory problems. According to the Korea Times, “a yellow dust advisory is issued when an hourly average dust concentration of more than 400 micrograms per cubic meter is expected to last for more than two hours. More than 800 micrograms leads to a yellow dust warning.” As of 4 a.m. local time on Monday, Seoul had 1,044 micrograms per cubic meter of PM-10, making it the worst yellow dust storm to hit South Korea during winter time in five years.

Yellow dust storms have long affected the Korean peninsula, and in 2008 they even forced the closure of schools and semiconductor factories in South Korea. The chronic dust storms, most common from March to May, undercut South Korea’s commendable efforts to reduce its domestically-generated air pollution. Seoul’s average concentration of PM-10 fell from 76 micrograms per cubic meter in 2002 to 41 in 2012, after the country replaced diesel buses and trucks with those powered with cleaner, compressed natural gas. However, there have been some troubling (although rare) upswings in the last few years, and the task is far from over. Besides efforts to further incentivize vehicles that use less-polluting energy, facilitate access to public transportation, and encourage alternative transport like carpool, bikes, and walking, this year Seoul will begin treating the city’s 10,000 barbecue restaurants and its 1,135 communal spas as air polluters and fine them for exceeding emissions standards.

China faces huge environmental and air-cleanup challenges and costs, which it is undertaking on its own. The country estimates that pollution cost it roughly 3.5% of GDP in 2010, according to a study by the Council on Foreign Relations, and life expectancy in the north has decreased about 5.5 years due to air pollution. Meanwhile, China’s investment in renewable energy has risen from $55 billion in 2004 to $310 billion in 2014.

Environment ministers from China, South Korea, and Japan meet at least once per year and have established working groups devoted to air pollution, but these don’t result in much beyond expanding tree-planting projects in inner desert regions. China’s neighbors complain about toxic yellow dust but ultimately they must make do with Beijing’s decisions, which place Chinese economic growth above all else. That said, there are business opportunities throughout the region for air purifiers, filters, renewable energy, and vacation travel to escape cities.

Stars and Stripes reported that the Korea Meteorological Administration expects a lower level of yellow dust this year than the country averaged between 1981 and 2010. The prevailing winds in central and southern China are likely to undergo a cyclical change this year, said Kim Yongjin, a senior KMA weather forecaster. As a result, South Korea won’t experience the northwesterly winds that have worsened yellow dust levels in recent years.

If the weatherman’s prediction comes true, then all of South Korea’s businesses and inhabitants can breathe a sigh of relief – for now.

— Michael Lerner, Business Editor of Blouin News