Fresh Air or Ghastly Gasp: Getting Clear On Saigon's Air

Health - Saigon/HCMC: Oct. 23, 2017

Those who live in Saigon will agree that the air quality could be improved. Although the situation isn’t as bad as in Hanoi, the air quality reading still occasionally flutters in and out of the unhealthy range and sometimes even spikes into the hazardous range.

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The Culprits

According to IQAir, a Swiss company that specialises in air purifiers, the main causes of air pollution in Vietnam are traffic and industrial, handicraft and construction activities, with traffic accounting for 70 percent of pollution in urban areas.

The air that we breathe is laced with carcinogenic substances.

According to research by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency and Yale University, Vietnam is among the top 10 countries in the world for air pollution.

Measuring It

Air pollution consists of different components: oxides of nitrogen which consists of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitric oxide (NO); carbon monoxide (CO); sulphur dioxide (SO2); and particulate-matter (PM), which includes particles that measure below 10 micrometres (PM10) and the more dangerous 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5)—dangerous because that’s small enough to bypass your body’s natural filtration system and end up deep in your lungs. (The diameter of a strand of human hair is 50-70 micrometres.)

Most PM2.5 particles are byproducts of organic compounds, combustion and metals, which mostly originate from industrial zones and exhaust fumes from vehicles.

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What’s That Smell?

However, air pollution isn’t just limited to factories and combustion. In September 2016, the Da Phuoc landfill, run by Vietnam Waste Solutions Inc (VWS) in Binh Chanh District, was caught in a stink when it was found to have been illegally discharging sewage that exceeded safety limits.

This ended up with residents in District 7 and neighbouring areas having to deal with a bad stench for a few months, which only got worse during the rainy season and reached unbearable levels at night.

The operator ended up getting fined more than VND1.5 billion (US$66,000).

What You Can Do

Air pollution affects the entire troposphere — the lowest levels of the atmosphere in which we mere mortals live — but is anthropogenic, meaning it’s man made and something you can’t easily escape from.

So how can you play your part to ensure you’re not contributing to it?

The first step is to limit the amount of exhaust fumes on the road by either carpooling, riding a bicycle if the journey is short or taking a bus. If you’re driving or riding a motorbike, ensure that your vehicle is well-tuned and maintained, change the oil and filters and check your tyre pressures and wheel alignment.

If you’re going to be stationary for a while, turn off your engine. Idling is just contributing unnecessarily to the pollution.

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[Translation: I turned off my engine. Did you? Turn off your engine when the light is red!]

Other than the roads, you can also make a few adjustments to some of your daily tasks. Conserve energy by turning off your lights and electric appliances when not in use, use energy efficient light bulbs and appliances, use water-based or solvent free paints, and buy products that say “Low VOC”. Make sure all containers of household cleaners, chemicals and solvents are sealed, to prevent any of them from evaporating into the air.

Or just eat your way out of this problem

According to new medical evidence discussed in a New York Times opinion piece on air quality and diet, a Mediterranean diet -- fish, nuts, fruits and whole grains -- may go a long way towards strengthening the health of those who are low on high-quality air (read: us). There’s some interesting new research out there that suggests Vitamin B, fish oil and broccoli sprout extract drives down heart rate variability of individuals exposed to air pollution.

So, have some fish tonight and maybe finish off with a banana for that Vitamin B. It may be the best defence against HCMC’s unhealthy haze.

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