Hanoi’s dire air stifles daily routine

By Dat Nguyen   December 17, 2019 | 04:41 pm PT
Hanoi’s dire air stifles daily routine
Vietnamese women wear protective masks while walking around Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham.
Rising concern over air quality has seen Hanoi residents adjust daily routine to avoid outdoor activities, limit exposure.

Dang Thi Mai’s group of middle-age walkers last week saw its headcount drop from nine to seven. This week, it fell to six.

In Cau Giay District, blessed with intense traffic congestion, mushrooming office blocks and dwindling trees, 58-year-old Mai says she’s reluctant to walk in the park, even with a mask, in fear of fine dust.

"Three fellow walkers will only return to the group once the air improves. I totally understand their decision. On smoggy days, I cough way more after a walk."

In bordering Thanh Xuan District, Le Dieu Huong and her daughter uses ride-hailing services instead of their bikes, despite the higher costs.

"The more I can limit my family’s exposure to the air the better," the 35-year-old marketing head of a company explains.

Huong has even asked her 14-year-old kid to scale down on extracurricular classes, limiting her weekly basketball practice.

Her family spends most of its time inside their apartment, where a newly-bought VND5 million ($216) air purifier runs around the clock.

"Last weekend, we had a dinner reservation at a restaurant half an hour away, but decided to cook instead to avoid using our motorbike."

Mai and Huong fall among millions of Hanoi residents who have seen their daily routines distorted in recent months by something they cannot live without: the air.

Haze reduces visibility of drivers on the Thang Long Highway, urging them to turn on headlights at 7:30 a.m. December 14, 2019. Photo by VnExrpress.

Haze reduces visibility of drivers on the Thang Long Highway, urging them to turn on headlights at 7:30 a.m. December 14, 2019. Photo by VnExpress.

Hanoi last week saw its Air Quality Index (AQI) soar to "very unhealthy" levels above 200, then to hazardous levels above 300, according to the city’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

This means individuals, especially children and seniors with heart or lung problems, should stay indoors.

From December 7-12, average PM2.5 levels across the capital has been measured at up to three times the safety limit, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. PM2.5 are superfine particles 3 percent the diameter of a human hair.

Doctor Nguyen Ngoc Hong, head of the occupational lung disease department at Central Lung Hospital, explains PM2.5 fine dust could pass through regular masks to enter the body, which then cause respiratory disease and even cancer.

The Ministry of Health has urged residents to limit outdoor activities and close their windows, use masks which can filter fine dust, and limit the consumption of coal and other combustible material.

Despite the warning, National Geriatric Hospital in Dong Da District last week received 35 emergency cases, up 1.5 times compared to normal.

The Respiratory Center in Bach Mai Hospital served 100 new patients a day in the first 10 months, many having to share a bed due to limited facilities.

Hanoi authorities acknowledge air quality has been declining, Chairman of the Municipal People's Committee Nguyen Duc Chung admitting the growing number of construction projects, cars and motorcycles create some of the trouble, with heavy industry, including steel works, cement factories and coal-fired plants additional culprits.

The city of eight million people facilitates more than five million motorbikes and 550,000 cars, the number of private vehicles increasing at a rate of 4.6 percent a year.

However, officials have yet to outline any comprehensive plan to mitigate the causes of pollution.

Residents in Vietnam’s second largest city know they can only rely on themselves for protection.

Viet, a ride-haling motorbike driver in Hanoi, has upped his working hours late into the night to avoid emissions and dust.

"I don’t wear fancy masks like some others, so I’ve been working late since the air seems more breathable than during the day."

The 27-year-old’s only protection comes in the form of a thin [surgical] mask, incapable of preventing dust from entering his body.

"Driving these days is harmful to your health. If my coughing persists, I will return to the countryside and farm."

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