As lockdowns ease, Metro Manila pollution levels rise anew: report

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 08 2020 05:33 PM | Updated as of Jun 08 2020 06:01 PM

Motorists and bikers navigate along Commonwealth Ave around 6AM on June 1, 2020, the start of the general community quarantine in Metro Manila. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

MANILA — As the government relaxed quarantine rules initially set to curb the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), pollution in the capital region has "rebound," a report claimed Monday. 

“Pollution levels in Metro Manila have been steadily increasing since the beginning of May, as industries restart and cities that have major connecting highways reportedly began seeing more vehicles on the road,” according to the Special Report on Managing Air Quality Beyond COVID-19 by Greenpeace and Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

While nitrogen dioxide and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can cause various health diseases, “drastically diminished in the first two weeks” of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in the National Capital Region, except Caloocan, in March, the region's air quality has slid back, the report released last week said. 
“Although the metro’s overall air quality remained much improved compared to previous years, the air quality gains are now sliding back in all these cities. This change is expected as the country remains heavily reliant on highly polluting fossil fuel energy sources across all sectors,” the report said.

For the first two weeks of May, nitrogen dioxide, which is produced through road traffic and fossil fuel combustion, increased by almost 50 percent compared to the last two weeks of April. Significant increases in NO2 levels were observed in Marikina, San Juan, and Makati “where levels more than doubled in comparison to the last week of April.”

When Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) started during the latter half of May, Makati and Pasig’s NO2 levels jumped by around 75 percent from the previous week.

Unlike NO2, the report said that PM2.5, which can cause serious health problems such as lung cancer, “did not dramaticaly rebound with the MECQ.”

“One possible explanation for this is that transportation activities within cities remain limited, even with the increase of vehicles and traffic on major roads and highways,” the report said.

Caloocan's pollution levels remained high despite the quarantine while Pasig City had the “most sustained improvements” for both pollutants.

“With the metropolis shifting to looser restrictions on travel and other activities under the general community quarantine (GCQ) starting June 1, a return to smog and pollution levels prior to the ECQ may not be far behind,” Greenpeace said in a statement. 

The group pointed out that exposure to pollutants affects a person’s immune system and increases vulnerability to illnesses like COVID-19. It also has negative effects on food and water systems, and the climate. 

“The ECQ gave Filipino citizens a glimpse of what cities can be like with healthy, clean air,” said Greenpeace campaigner Rhea Jane Pescador-Mallari. 

“Moving forward, if the government is willing to use the opportunities and lessons learned from the pandemic and amplify it through policies and infrastructure, active mobility and micro mobility, as well as invest in efficient and safe mass public transport, then a return to the massive pollution levels before COVID-19 can be avoided.”

CREA analyst Isabella Suarez meanwhile said that instead of a “new normal,” the Philippines should pursue a “better normal” that includes ensuring good air quality.

The group also recommended flexible remote work arrangements, which includes staggered work shifts, and people-centric urban design. They also called for the rebuilding of trust in mass transit.

“Rather than banning the mass transport systems, providing clear guidance for safety and implementing sanitation measures like cleaning regimes; issuing PPEs to drivers and staff; mandating face coverings for passengers; and increasing trips to account for limiting the number of passengers per ride could safely allow the rail transit system, buses and public utility vehicles to run and lessen private vehicles on the road in the short term,” the groups said.

They also called for the promotion of low-cost and carbon-neutral options such as electric-powered jeepneys and bikes, apart from the implementation of stricter standards for industrial air pollution and vehicle emissions.

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