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Diesel Fuel and Polluted Air are killing Filipinos

Smog-filled metropolisa daily occurrence. Photo Manila Bulletin

ccording to the website of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), an agency of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), lung cancer is “the top cause of cancer-related deaths among men, and the third cause of cancer deaths among women, outranked by breast and cervical cancer” in the country and the world.

The PCHRD website further states that “the age-adjusted death rate related to lung cancer is 15.46 per 100,000 of population, placing the Philippines as number 80 in the world in 2011,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And while smoking is the primary cause, urban smog appears to be a culprit as well.

California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), one of six agencies under the umbrella of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) warns of the health effects of diesel exhaust: “As we breathe, the toxic gases and small particles of diesel exhaust are drawn into the lungs. The microscopic particles in diesel exhaust are less than one-fifth the thickness of a human hair and are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs.”

OEHHA explains that “diesel exhaust and many individual substances contained in it (including arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and nickel) have the potential to contribute to mutations in cells that can lead to cancer. In fact, long-term exposure to diesel exhaust particles poses the highest cancer risk of any toxic air contaminant evaluated by OEHHA.”

Aside from the long-term risk of cancer, “exposure to diesel exhaust can have immediate health effects. Diesel exhaust can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, and it can cause coughs, headaches, lightheadedness and nausea. In studies with human volunteers, diesel exhaust particles made people with allergies more susceptible to the materials to which they are allergic, such as dust and pollen. Exposure to diesel exhaust also causes inflammation in the lungs, which may aggravate chronic respiratory symptoms and increase the frequency or intensity of asthma attacks.”

The California agency also notes that “the elderly and people with emphysema, asthma, and chronic heart and lung disease are especially sensitive to fine-particle pollution. Numerous studies have linked elevated particle levels in the air to increased hospital admissions, emergency room visits, asthma attacks and premature deaths among those suffering from respiratory problems. Because children’s lungs and respiratory systems are still developing, they are also more susceptible than healthy adults to fine particles. Exposure to fine particles is associated with increased frequency of childhood illnesses and can also reduce lung function in children.”

Even the World Health Organization (WHO) through its International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has weighed in stating that the “IARC classifies diesel engine exhaust as ‘carcinogenic to humans,’ based on sufficient evidence that it is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.” The agency also noted that “there is ‘some evidence of a positive association’ between diesel exhaust and bladder cancer.”

Given all the above, it is high time Philippine government through the Duterte administration did something about the heavy smog in most of its major cities, especially Metro Manila and its environs.

While Duterte’s planned phase-out of the ubiquitous jeepney is a start—they run on old, dirty, surplus diesel engines from Japan and other Southeast Asian countries where they are no longer allowed—the plan is experiencing significant push-back from the many sectors that will be affected by the new law.

Given this administration’s track record so far, many Filipinos are not expecting the demise of the jeepney anytime soon. But getting rid of that Pinoy transportation icon is long overdue. They jeepney is an eyesore that even the unheralded individual or individuals who invented the contraption, likely never thought it would be around this long—it was just supposed to be a temporary fix to get people around after World War II when the city’s transportation system was in shambles. No one expected it to be a permanent solution.

Aside from the jeepney (and the two-stroke tricycle—another notorious polluter) there are still tens of thousands of private vehicles, trucks and buses that run on diesel fuel. Upper middle-class families prefer big diesel SUVs and pickup trucks because diesel is the least expensive fuel for vehicles in most areas of the country.

Diesel fuel should be made the most expensive—gradually, over a five-year period—by increasing taxes on it. Given the dangerous smog that it creates, the layers of soot that it deposits on home and buildings, and the carcinogens it emits that kill thousands every year, diesel fuel causes billions of pesos in damage and harm each year.

In addition, more stringent smog testing requirements for all vehicles (gasoline and diesel) must be implemented. Smoke belchers, be they public buses or private vehicles, should be made to pay a hefty fine.

Local car makers should be taken to task as well. For instance, the Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle is selling well in many countries around the world. In the Philippines, where daily smog is a problem in city after city, that model is not aggressively marketed. The government must start requiring local automakers to start selling an increasingly larger number of low or zero emission vehicles. The state of California sets stringent clean-air requirement on cars sold in their state and are now reaping the benefits of significantly cleaner air, as well as a healthier population.

Our local government officials, congressmen, senators, and past administrations should have done all these a long time ago. Maybe the Duterte administration—which sees itself as a pioneering and effective administration—will finally bring about the needed changes. We’ll see. But if our leaders fail us yet again, the public should step in and demand that these changes be implemented. No one wants to see their children and grandchildren breathing harmful, polluted air, because we were all too lazy to stand up and demand a cleaner country for them. Published 10/26/2018

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