Air pollution awareness growing

By Chiang Sheng 江盛  / 

Sat, Dec 26, 2015 - Page 8

In recent years, after hard work by environmentalists, academics, medical professionals and journalists, the public has become increasingly aware of the profound impact of air pollution on health, the environment and healthcare expenses. Advanced news and weather reports are now capable of discerning the relationship between winter weather patterns and air pollution, whether brought in from other nations or generated in Taiwan. The public has gradually learned that 9,000 lung cancer fatalities each year are directly related to air pollution.

Huang Chung-chieh (黃重傑), a thoracic surgeon at Changhua Hospital, last week said that lung cancer has become the new national disease, with central and southern Taiwan having turned into a lung cancer epidemic area. Doctors from National Taiwan University Hospital have on several occasions pointed to the relationship between air pollution and cardiovascular and other diseases. Members of the public can select clean water to drink and avoid fatty, sugary foods and beverages, but they cannot avoid breathing air, which is why improving air quality must be the nation’s top priority.

A wide range of things can be done to mitigate air pollution, including banning fireworks in cities; prohibiting the burning of ghost money and incense; reducing the quantity and pollution generated by scooters and cars; introducing eco-taxes, etc. However, at this stage, political determination is what is most urgently needed. In light of this, environmentalists are teaming up with other organizations and alliances to hold a demonstration in Taipei today amid intense presidential and legislative election campaigns.

This is to be the second time that such a protest has taken place since June 6, when nine cities and counties in central and southern Taiwan held coordinated protests against air pollution. The organizers aim to raise awareness among more members of the public, especially residents of Taipei, so that they pay attention to air pollution.

Taipei does not suffer from bad air quality only because smog travels to the city from abroad. Environmental group Taiwan Clean Air Network said that Taipei’s air quality has not improved since 1998, when Taipei and Tokyo had similar air pollution levels. Today, Tokyo’s air pollution is only 23 percent of Taipei’s.

The group’s founder, Yeh Kuang-fan (葉光芃), referred to the ambient air pollution in the cities in a database published by the WHO last year, which shows that Taipei’s air quality is among the worst in the world — 1,087th in the rankings.

Yeh is warning Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) that Taipei lags behind Tokyo by at least 16 years, saying: “This is embarrassing, as Taipei, the nation’s capital, has the most resources, but has such bad air quality.”

The key to Tokyo’s improved air quality was a reduction in vehicular traffic. In 1999, then-Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara waved a bottle of black soot produced by diesel cars as he announced on TV that the city would ban diesel cars from Tokyo streets, regulate car engines and require vehicles to install special equipment to reduce emissions. In other words, Tokyo’s mayor ordered that vehicles be fitted with filters, while Taiwanese put on masks to combat air pollution as cars, scooters and diesel vehicles continue to emit excessive pollution.

Although it is not necessary for Ko to emulate Ishihara, he should regard Taipei’s air pollution as an opportunity to demonstrate his capability.

During the recent Paris Climate Change Conference, Germanwatch, a non-governmental organization based in Germany, published a climate change performance index. Of the 61 nations in the index, Taiwan was ranked 52nd, putting it in a group of very poor performers. Apparently, the government has done nothing but chant slogans about cutting carbon emissions, while letting businesses and factories burn coal and produce air pollution. It has been utterly incapable of levying an eco-tax, restricting the number of vehicles on the road and prohibiting the burning of trash, the setting off of fireworks and the burning of ghost money. Politicians’ sluggishness, incompetence and inability to catch up with environmental ethics defies comprehension.

Seventy years ago, London was known as the city of fog. In his memoirs, The Memory Chalet, British historian Tony Judt said that London’s air quality used to be as bad as Beijing’s is today. At that time, London used cheap and abundant coal as fuel, and smog became a long-term threat to the city.

Judt said that when he would stick his head out of the car window to help his father keep a safe distance between the vehicle and the curb, his face would end up covered by layers of soot and he still could not see further than his arm could reach. In addition, the smog stunk.

When people in Taipei see a shrouded Taipei 101, they should be aware that there is a much greater chance they are looking at cancer-inducing smog, rather than romantic low clouds or fog. If residents do not start protesting against air pollution, Taipei will become a disgusting city of smog.

Chiang Sheng is an attending physician in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Mackay Memorial Hospital.

Translated by Ethan Zhan