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DENR test for Metro Manila air quality: Check your collar
Martin Marfil, Volt Contreras, Inquirer News Service (18 Aug 2004 Updated 02:06:03 Mla time)

MANILA, PHILIPPINES: TO BREATHE or not to breathe easy, that is the question.

Residents of Metro Manila, many of them blue in the face from pondering the dilemma every blessed day, were given two conflicting scenarios yesterday.

Check the inside of your collar, said Environment Secretary Elisea Gozun. There's less grime there than it used to catch, because the air is "cleaner" now. She had a well-funded study to back up this claim.

On the other hand, word from the Department of Health is that the air over the capital is just not safe. It quoted its own study, which noted an increase in the number of respiratory cases over the past year.

All right, Gozun said during a press forum at the Traders Hotel in Manila: Air quality was "not yet clean enough," but it had undergone "significant improvements" in the last decade. "You may recall how easily your collar got soiled back then. That's no longer the case."

The forum discussed a research funded by Asian Development Bank to assess the impact of air quality on public health.

Speaking of which, health officials presented a 2002-2003 study that listed air pollution among the causes of 300 "excess" cases of asthma, 19 "excess" cases of chronic bronchitis, 200 "excess" cases of respiratory ailments, and 40 cases of cardiovascular diseases.

In the same, uh, breath, the Public Monitoring Study of the Metro Manila Air Quality Improvement Sector Program recorded 330 "excess" deaths due to respiratory ailments, 200 "excess" deaths because of cardiovascular diseases, and another 390 "excess" deaths attributable to air pollution.


"Excess" refers to incidence on top of the "usual number," triggered by the increase in total suspended particulates (TSP) per cubic meter of air. According to the DOH study, any increase immediately translates to "excess" afflictions and deaths.

Gozun offered the "collar test" when the Inquirer asked for visible indicators of improved air quality. She was optimistic, explaining that in 2003, the year-round summary of daily TSP monitoring showed that the highest levels recorded was 508 micrograms in Valuenzuela City, and 476 micrograms over Congressional Road in Quezon City.

That was just "two times higher" that the standard set by the 1999 Clean Air Act -- 230 micrograms per cubic meter -- she said, pointing out that in 1991, it was "five times higher."

The DENR chief attributed the improvement partly to better-quality vehicle fuel now being used. Relative to this, she also cited the beneficial effects of requiring vehicles to pass emission tests prior to registration, as well as aggressive roadside apprehension of smoke-belching vehicles.

This piece of good news seemed lost on the DOH, whose document tagged motor vehicles as the major source of pollution. Besides, it was focused on coughs and wheezing more than cleaner collars.

Out of the 6,000 respondents that consisted of children aged six to 10 and adults aged 18 to 64, the DOH said, frequent cough was reported in 31.8 per cent of the kids in "high exposure" areas, and 26.5 percent of those in "medium exposure" areas. Respiratory ailment symptoms were described as "prevalent" in the adults.

Covering seven cities and municipalities in Metro Manila, the study identified Caloocan, Valenzuela and Quezon City as "high exposure areas." Taguig, Pateros and Pasig were labeled "medium exposure" areas. Antipolo was the only area considered "low exposure."

The DOH study concluded: "The result of the ambient air quality assessment indicate that coarse and particulate matter and tropospheric ozone pose considerable health risks to the population in Metro Manila."

Whatever that means, exactly, it doesn't smell good.

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