Following on the news in June last year confirming that pollution from burning diesel oil is carcinogenic, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced on Thursday last week that it has now classified outdoor air pollution as a Group 1 carcinogen — meaning there is “sufficient evidence that it is carcinogenic to humans” — that increasese the risk of lung and bladder cancers.
What the media failed to note was that the agency also said that suspended particulate matter, a major constituent of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and also classified as a Group 1 carcinogen.
There are many carcinogens in the environment, some of are associated with certain professions or with areas neighboring industrial zones. However, particulate matter is airborne and have been measured in high densities far from industrial zones.
In Taiwan, cities and counties in which particulate levels fail air quality standards include Changhua, Nantou, Yunlin, Chiayi and Pingtung counties, Chiayi City, Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung. The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) has classified these areas as Level 3 air pollution control zones. However, recent readings in southern and central Taiwan have shown that particulate levels have soared. For example, measurements taken on the afternoon of Wednesday last week have particulate levels in Chiayi’s Puzih station reading 496 micrograms per cubic meter, three times the standard; readings from the Annan station in Greater Tainan have been known to be as high as 391 micrograms per cubic meter; and levels in the area around Greater Kaohsiung and Pingtung are also a cause for concern.
The EPA Web site does warn that sensitive groups should exercise caution and avoid prolonged rigorous outdoor physical activity. It is not as if the government is unaware of what the problem is. The main sources of air pollution in central and southern Taiwan are factory emissions, vehicle and motorcycle exhaust, and climate factors. The head of the EPA’s Department of Air Quality Protection and Noise Control confirmed this in an interview on Oct. 11. However, there must be some other policy in place other than simply reminding people to exercise caution and to avoid going outside.
Despite the EPA’s efforts to reinforce stringent air quality control and emissions standards, this is clearly not enough.
It is about time the government find a solution. For a long time now, most of the nation’s resources have been plowed into developing the north at the expense of the south, whereas the opposite has been true in terms of industrial policy. The majority of heavy industry and pollution-belching coal-burning power stations are located in the south.
People living in central and southern Taiwan have been expected to swallow this, quite literally. The government ought to amend its industrial policy to remove the cause of the problem, by replacing coal-burning power stations with natural gas burning stations, implementing pollution volume restrictions, and planning for more extensive, faster mass rapid transit systems in order to curb exhaust emissions from personal vehicle use. As the IARC says, there should be no delay in curbing air pollution.
Now that the IARC has produced this report, confirming the health risks of air pollution, Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺), who recently survived a no-confidence vote in the legislature, need to reappraise the government’s policy. Air pollution causes cancer, and it will affect us all. Jiang, who has only just escaped with his life, should understand the immediacy of this more than most.
Wang Min-ling is deputy secretary-general of Citizen of the Earth, Taiwan.
Translated by Paul Cooper