“We’ll have to cancel,” says the voice on the other end. “The rain and wind is going to clear the air.”
Silence follows. We had been planning this for weeks.
With air quality such an issue in the fast industrializing cities of Asia — the pollution in Beijing is presently 25 times above the internationally accepted safety level — the idea was to see how Ho Chi Minh City is faring. Using the ParticleScan Pro, a laser particle counter that measures the number of particles in the air, we would go to a number of places in the city, both indoors and out, to obtain readings. This would in turn give an idea of pollution levels. But with the air clearing our original plan was going up in a haze of clean air.
Yet it was an opportunity, too. Here was a chance to test how important the rain and wind, and in particular the rainy season is to this city and its air quality. As someone was to point out later on that day, “You should do this in March or April when it’s hot and dry. The readings would go through the roof.”
Taking our chance an hour later we met at Ben Thanh Market — myself, Aron Szabo and his partner Rita Csontos — to see the other end of the air pollution scale in this city, a chance to measure it when it may even be within acceptable international limits. Despite taking almost daily readings, even Aron had yet to test the air quality after the rain had come down.
As we discovered, on the roundabout opposite Ben Thanh Market during afternoon rush hour and at the end of a downpour, the air quality was acceptable. Just. Around 60,000 units, the international standard set by WHO. Normally even in Phu My Hung, the area of the city that supposedly has the freshest air, the reading hits between 300,000 and 500,000. Without the rainy season the air quality in this city would be a mess.
Keeping it Clean
Described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “a contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere,” air pollution is a growing concern. According to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a study conducted jointly by Yale University and Columbia University in the US, in 2012 Vietnam’s environmental performance was deemed to be ‘modest’ and ranked 79th out of the 132 countries in the survey. While in some areas — water resources, forest vitality and dealing with climate change — the country performed relatively well, the stand-out low performance sector was air pollution. Here the effect of air pollution on human health was ranked an alarming 125th.
The impact on health takes many forms. The pollutant carbon dioxide, for example, which comes from motor vehicle exhaust fumes, can cause headaches, reduced mental alertness, heart attacks, cardiovascular diseases, impaired fetal development and even death. The gaseous pollutant ozone is nearly as harmful, causing eye and throat irritation, coughing, respiratory tract problems, asthma and lung damage. Sulfur dioxide, which comes from heavy industry such as coal-fired power plants, petroleum refineries, the manufacture of sulfuric acid and the smelting of ores containing sulfur has a similar effect, causing eye irritation, wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and lung damage. Then there is particulate matter (PM10) — dust, soot and other tiny bits of solid materials that are released into and move around in the air — which when inhaled can penetrate deep into human lungs and veins, resulting in cancer, asthma, heart problems and other respiratory diseases.
It is no surprise, then, that an estimated four million Vietnamese are believed to have some form of asthma. Indeed, WHO estimates that more than two million people around the world die every year because of air pollution. And with bad air quality so increasingly noticeable, it is no wonder that so many motorbike drivers in this city are wearing facemasks.
Leaving Ben Thanh Market we head to a well-known local bar with indoor air-conditioning. It’s late afternoon so the establishment has yet to pack out, but nonetheless the reading is above 200,000. And this is despite the freshness of the air outside. We then put the laser particle counter to the smoking test. A cigarette is lit and placed close to the reader. Almost immediately the particle count rises — 700,000, 1,000,000 and then over 2,000,000. With the cigarette now out, the readings gradually go down again, but only as low as 220,000. The bar is starting to fill up, too, and its clear that despite the freshness of the air outside, the pollution will gradually increase.
“You would expect the air quality inside to be better than outside,” explains Aron. “But it’s not. All air-conditioning in a closed environment does is circulate the air, keeping it within the same space. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, which is why indoor air pollution is so much more dangerous than its equivalent outdoors.”
To test this theory we decide to take a second set of readings. So we head to another well-known bar which has an outdoor smoking terrace and an indoor air-con space where smoking is forbidden. The establishment also leaves their doors open.
The difference is astonishing. Thanks to the air circulation the readings both indoors and outdoors are the same, around 40,000. All giving the old theory of closing doors when you turn on the air-con a big kick up the posterior. For good air quality, circulation is vital.
“The problem is not being exposed to huge amounts of particles in the air,” says Aron. “The problem is not giving your lungs enough time to relax again. This is the issue with air-con when there’s no circulation. Your lungs don’t relax.”
No Rain, No Wind
Two mornings later we head to Phu My Hung, the area marketed as having the freshest air in the city. There is no wind and it hasn’t rained in 36 hours. We take our first reading outdoors at the end of Nguyen Luong Bang, the outskirts of Vietnam’s equivalent to Singapore. Morning air is supposed to be fresh — it certainly is where I come from — but here it is anything but. The readings are between 300,000 and 320,000, five times the limit. We then move to The Crescent. Here it is even worse — 450,000.
An air-con café for breakfast brings the first eye-opener of the day. A man at a table behind us lights up a cigarette. From readings of between 450,000 and 600,000 the counter spirals, settling at around a million. He puts out his cigarette and the readings gradually go down, but only to 600,000. And that takes over 20 minutes. Second-hand smoke.
We talk for a bit about comparing An Phu to Phu My Hung. Would it be better or worse? What about other areas of the city? Would it be possible in terms of air quality to truly work out the best place to live in Saigon? We also talk about measuring the air quality in hotel lobbies, at the bottom and top of a high-rise, and in the depths of one of the city centre’s basement food courts. But to take on such an approach we would need to set up a controlled experiment. This would require more than one particle reader and it would necessitate frequent measurements over a lengthy period at the same times each day.
So instead we decide to focus on the smoking aspect and the forthcoming ban. Just how bad is the air in a busy, smoky bar on a weekend night? The results as we discover the next day are alarming. Our chosen, nameless venue fairs very badly, averaging between 1,300,000 and 1,400,000 during its peak period.
It’s not as bad as the standard outdoor readings in Beijing — 1,500,000. But it certainly adds to the significance of the upcoming smoking ban. The question is, will it be enforced?
Keeping it Pure
Improving air quality requires a broad range of measures that are beyond our personal control. However, there is much we can do ourselves if we want to take action.
If you drive a motorbike, wear a facemask. There are now a range of products on the market — check out Saigon Scooter Centre (www.saigonscootercentre.com ) to see what they have available at the top end. Otherwise standard cloth masks are available at pharmacies or street-side cigarette and raincoat stands.
For smokers, quite simply don’t smoke indoors. Especially in an environment with air-con. And if you live or work in an air-con environment, try to get the air circulating. This can be anything from opening the windows for a few hours a day to opening doors and creating some airflow.
An alternative is to buy an air purifier for use indoors. Aron Szabo is the local agent for IQAir, a Swiss company credited in the industry for selling the best machines on the market for both residential and commercial use. Using a high-tech filtration and fan system, the purifiers remove ultrafine particles, the smallest and most numerous pollutants in the air. Including viruses, oil smoke, diesel soot, black carbon, smog, gas molecules, tobacco dust, bacteria, pet allergens and toner dust; these pollutants have the most negative effects on our health.