Coming to terms with clean air disappearing into thin air

By Long Nguyen   October 1, 2019 | 04:38 pm PT
Urban Vietnamese are slowly but surely realizing that the days of stepping outside to take deep breaths of fresh air are over.

As he set out on his motorbike to his office in central Ho Chi Minh City in the morning, Thanh suddenly turned around and returned home because he had forgotten something. Last weekend, he was driving in the downtown area without it, and he experienced dry throat and sore eyes.

For a week now, Thanh has been using a mask while driving and even when he walks out for lunch. He bought it at an online store with 5 other people in his office.

"I had never used dust masks before because they made me feel uncomfortable, but now a mask is a must for everyone in the city," said the 27-year-old accountant. It is not unusual now to see people wearing masks on city streets in Vietnam - pedestrians, motorbike riders and street vendors.

Vietnamese women in air pollution protective masks. Photo by Shuttlestock.

Vietnamese women in air pollution protective masks. Photo by Shuttlestock/ Robert Podlaski.

It has been cool and foggy in HCMC for more than a week. People used to think that it was a romantic sight, seeing buildings in the cites poke out like needles from a dark blanket of air until they discovered that it was not fog, but smog.

On September 26, HCMC's Air Quality Index (AQI) level made it the most polluted city in the world, and Hanoi was in third position. The level of PM2.5 in the two metropolises has always been higher than the World Health Organization's (WHO) threshold. 

With residents of both major cities in the country realizing that the air they breathe in is unhealthy, and that they are helpless in changing it, they are devising ways to coexist with it.

These days, heavy smog has forced millions of people in Hanoi and HCMC to never hit the streets without masks on their faces, even if they are cheap ones that will never protect them from dust.

Face masks with activated charcoal have gained popularity over the years. Trang, a pharmacy owner in HCMC, said that sales of these masks rose last week. On average, she sells up to 200 masks daily, each costing VND 2,000 ($0.08). 

Fine dust

Several Hanoian and Saigonese are looking for greater protection, realizing also that fine dust is one of the health threats they face. 

According to Binh Nguyen, an expert with the Vietnamese website Pam Air, which seeks to provide air quality information, "only standard masks for fine particle can reduce the detrimental influence of a high concentration of fine dust on the respiratory system."

Le Ha, working for the work safety and healthcare brand 3M, said that the number of disposable face masks she sells via her Facebook page against fine dust particles has been rising significantly in both Hanoi and HCMC. For VND30,000 ($1.29), Ha's clients get a disposable mask which can be used for several days.

Ha alluded to the diversity emerging in this market, saying many people were willing to pay more for masks imported from the U.S. and Europe with prices up to VND900,000 ($38.8) each. Even without knowing about quality control or getting qualified guidance, people are opening up their wallets when they hear about masks that can protect them from fine dust. 

Hanois sky on September 30. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

The iconic Long Bien Bridge and high-rise buildings in Hanoi are covered by smog on September 30, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Some have gotten really serious about the air they breathe by buying air quality monitors to update themselves with real-time AQI outside and inside their homes. Checking the AQI before going out now has become a habit for these people.

The air purifiers market in Hanoi and HCMC has been heating up lately. Many electrical appliances sellers not wanting to miss out on current trends are promoting these devices with false and unrealistic advertisements, saying that they kill airborne bacteria, viruses, mold spores, restore a balanced level of humidity, and so on.

Sales of air purifiers at some stores in HCMC rocketed by 200 percent last month. A shop owner on Xo Viet NgheTinh, HCMC, claimed that he sold up to 70 units daily.

Priced between VND3 million ($129.3) and VND15 million ($646.6), air purifiers are becoming indispensable items in modern households, especially in the two big cities.

Some experts are not convinced about the functions of these machines, which they say need to be evaluated with specialized equipment. However, for most users, "something is better than nothing."

Avoiding peak hours

Reducing exposure to polluted air is also a choice that many people are making, when they realize that masks do not offer much protection against traffic exhaust and emissions. Some are opting to commute by buses and some try to avoid traveling during peak hours to have the most breathable air.

Commuting 20km per day from the suburban district of Binh Tan to central HCMC, Thanh sometimes asked his manager to start working at 6.30 a.m. and finish at 3 p.m. He is trying to wake up earlier to travel by bus instead of riding the motorbike. 

Leaving the cities is also a choice that people are considering. Hung, a 22-year-old student at the University of Technology in HCMC, said that he planned to live in his hometown Nha Trang after graduation next year, because he could not stand wearing masks all the time.

"My sister and her 3-year-old son left the city last week, they are now staying in Nha Trang and her husband will visit them every month. She did not want her son to breathe in this kind of air," Hung told VnExpress International as he waited for his friend at the university gate, wearing a mask.

In May 2019, a survey carried out by market research firm Indochina Research found that air pollution was one of the top concerns of citizens in Hanoi and HCMC. 

Breathing to die?

However, despite all the concerns that residents have expressed, authorities have not really come up with the drastic solutions that the problem needs. Instead, they are finding explanations like seasonal transition and periodical episode for the haze that is blanketing both cities these days.

Many VnExpess readers recently said they do not want excuses and explanations but action against air pollution. 

They are worried that the smog still hangs in the air and limits visibility to mere miles these days, and tiny particles could enter their body and affect their health. 

The WHO considers air pollution to be the most prominent societal health risk of recent times. It estimates that more than 7 million people die each year due to the consequences of air pollution, more than smoking, hunger and natural disasters combined.

After the blanket of smog had covered HCMC for 8 days, the municipal Department of Natural Resources and Environment reported on September 25 that there was a significant increase of NO2, SO2, CO and fine dust PM10, PM2.5 in the air. They said that the smog smothering Saigon was made up of condensed air pollutants caused by high moisture and temperature inversion.

Local hospitals have reported that increasing numbers of HCMC residents are suffering from respiratory sickness as the air quality plunges. Doctors are generally agreed that air pollution in HCMC in particular and the southern region in general has become a severe health risk now.

Last month, Nguyen Ngoc Hong, head of the occupational lung disease at the Vietnam National Lung Hospital in Hanoi, urged older people, children and those having chronic lung and heart diseases to avoid going outside as much as possible due to the dirty air in the capital.

Dense traffic in HCMC. Photo by Shuttlestock.

Dense traffic in HCMC. Photo by Shuttlestock/xuanhuongho.

Binh Nguyen from Pam Air has suggested that people adopt "temporary solutions" such as using masks, air purifiers and checking the AQI regularly, especially early in the morning. 

"Cooking with gas ovens, burning joss paper also create fine dust, people should be careful even they are at home," Binh warned.

Last year, experts discovered inhaled soot particles in the placentas of five women giving birth in London, the U.K. Scientists have also found out that there is no part of the body that fine dust cannot reach, and no stage of growth, from gestation to advanced age, they do not stir.

On September 27, Hanoi (again) took the top spot for the city with worst air quality in the world in a ranking of more than 10,000 cities worldwide, with its AQI at 175.

The lethal amalgam of uncontrolled industrialization, dense traffic, waste burning and dry seasons with little wind has become a long-term health risk for residents of big cities in particular and the country in general.

Amidst this smog, there is no clarity or solution in sight.

Meanwhile, Thanh is resigned to living with the haze, and used to wearing masks all the time.

"I'm not brave enough to go outside without a mask. I'm worried and I hope the pollution ends soon. I feel sorry for myself and this generation."

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