Science webinar tackles air quality, human-induced issues in Metro Manila

A webinar on the topic “Living on the Impacts of Environmental Pollution in the Philippines: Issues, challenges and managing what we know” was conducted by the UST College of Science with Assoc. Prof. Mylene G. Cayetano, Ph.D., who has over 15 years of experience in the environment sector. Through the UST Cloud Campus and the UST-Science Facebook page, the webinar was live streamed on July 7, 2020.

Department of Biological Sciences Chair Dr. Richard B. Pavia, Jr., emphasized in his opening remarks that one of the most noticeable phenomena after the Enhanced Community Quarantine was declared was the normally ubiquitous ‘urban haze‘ from vehicle emissions that gave way to clearer skylines.

“People started realizing that we do have a large effect, mostly negative, on the environment, but we realized that just by staying home, by not using cars, [the environmental situation wasn’t] as hopeless as they seemed. Since it led to such a remarkable improvement in our immediate surroundings, it gives us hope that if we do more, we really can push environmental recovery,” said Pavia.

However, Pavia warned, with this development came a worrying compromise — a “delivery culture” that increased the use of plastic disposable utensils and packaging materials that are building up in addition to reports that used Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), one-time use only by necessity, are being found washed up on shores and clogging up waterways.

Air quality improvement in time of quarantine

Having begun on the topic of the anthrosphere and the interaction of humans with nature, Cayetano’s lecture focused on why urban environments need particular attention and the impact of air pollution.

Presenting data from the Land Transportation Office showing that the registered motor vehicles in the Philippines have exceeded the 12 million mark as of 2018, Cayetano cautioned that motor vehicle emissions, in comparison to other sources of pollution, produce airborne particulate matter which produces the haze shrouding cities.

This is potentially dangerous because “when we inhale [in polluted surroundings], we take in particles in the atmosphere, and particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) may linger in the gas exchange regions of the lungs, which may cause diseases,” shared Cayetano.

The lecture also highlighted the sharp decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) averages from comparing the levels from two weeks prior to ECQ (March 2 to 8) to the sixth week of ECQ (April 20 to 26), as mapped by her colleague Engr. Roseanne Ramos from the University of the Philippines. NO2 is a pollutant that ‘primarily gets in the air from the burning of fuel, i.e., emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment.’

One of the questions she let the audience contemplate at this point was “Does the population really need to be in quarantine just to attain this air quality improvement?”

Since the quarantine is a temporary solution to a different problem, more efforts need to be undertaken in order to scale back air pollution and improve air quality, especially in urban spaces. Cayetano shared that, in the short term and personal level, the community can avoid unnecessary idling of cars, burning waste in open spaces and smoking in public places. For long-term solutions at the national and local government level, Cayetano echoes the calls of fellow experts to avoid urban sprawl by following proper urban planning, having a sustainable and reliable mass transport system, ceding road space to non-motorized transport systems like bicycles, and switching to clean energy that can power more green cities, among others.

“Human-induced issues and challenges can be solved by human-driven solutions. We must continue measuring the impact of human activities [on the environment] because we can only manage what we know,” she shared with the listeners, adding that if maintaining good air quality is the goal in the ‘new normal’, conscious and responsible choices have to be made in usual human activities.

Currently an Adjunct Research Professor of the International Environmental Research Institute at the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, Dr. Cayetano also teaches at the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology at the University of the Philippines – Diliman, where she is the Founding Head of the Environmental Pollution Studies Laboratory.

The webinar was held as part of the Modified Enhanced Online Week of Science (MEOWS), which the UST College of Science celebrated remotely in the third academic term.

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