Wed, May 07, 2008 - Page 2 News List

Scientists collaborate in air quality project: EPA

AIRBORNE Fifty to 60 percent of the mercury in Taiwan's air comes from China, EPA Minister Winston Dang said, adding that the US similarly suffers from China's pollution


Environmental protection is without borders, and nations around the world are collaborating in air quality monitoring efforts to monitor pollutant density in the air, as well as to formulate possible ways to combat health and environmental hazards the pollutants are causing, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) said yesterday.

Because of air currents that travel around the globe, airborne waste from industrial operations and biomass incineration in China and Southeast Asian countries are causing increasing degrees of air contamination around the world, EPA Minister Winston Dang (陳重信) said.

Such wastes have caused the world to suffer from more frequent and severe acid rain, sandstorms, as well as denser concentrations of heavy metal particles, Dang said.

“In the past two years we have observed that every time a front comes from China, the mercury level in Taiwan’s air increased drastically,” Dang said. “From 1950 to 2000, China suffered from one sandstorm per year. However, in 2002, 10 sandstorms were recorded, while in 2006, 17 sandstorms occurred.”

With this in mind, the administration two years ago built the Lulin (鹿林) Atmospheric Background Station near Yushan (玉山), Taiwan’s highest mountain, to detect the air composition makeup of air transported from faraway places.

The station was built at 2,862m above sea level for several reasons, Dang said.

“Heavy metals, such as mercury, do not travel to such altitudes if they are from local sources — the particles we get in samples here would be those that travel around the Earth on air currents,” he said.

In addition, because polluting behavior can mostly be ruled out in the population-scarce mountain area, the samples obtained from the station can additionally provide “baseline” information for air quality in the rest of the nation, he said.

Mercury, an element that exists naturally in the environment, is mostly released into the air through human activities such as mining or burning coal, Dang said.

“When converted in the environment by microorganisms into the more toxic methylmercury, mercury’s most common organic form, the element attacks the central nervous system in humans and bioaccumulates in the aquatic food chain,” he said.

Fifty to 60 percent of the mercury in Taiwan’s air comes from industrial areas in China, Dang said, adding Japan and the US similarly suffer from China’s pollution.

“While we can refuse to eat contaminated fish, we cannot stop breathing — the situation is very serious and action should be taken to combat this problem,” he said.

Since 2006, the administration had joined the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a global network project to monitor the planet’s air quality, Dang said.

One of the advantages of working with other countries is that the best equipment and personnel can be employed, Dang said.

“The equipment the station utilizes, a Depolarization Lidar System, which measures the vertical distribution of aerosol particles smaller than the size of bacteria by laser detection, is currently one of the most advanced pieces of equipment in the world,” he said.

The network has discovered that pollutants would first go from China to Taiwan, then, through Okinawa and Hawaii, eventually arriving in California, he said.

The information is both alarming and useful, Dang said.

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