Korea's Air Is Dirty, But It's Not All Close-Neighbor China's Fault : Parallels South Korea likes to point the finger at China for its pollution woes, but that's not the whole story. New research is examining how much Korean smog is caused by neighbors and how much is home-grown.

Korea's Air Is Dirty, But It's Not All Close-Neighbor China's Fault

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About one billion people living in East Asia breathe unsafe polluted air. Most of them are in China, but air pollution and its effect drift over national boundaries. As NPR's Elise Hu reports from South Korea, blaming regional neighbors for bad air is complicating efforts to clean it.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: In Seoul today and on most days this spring, levels of the most dangerous kind of pollution exceed the World Health Organization's recommended limit. Air pollution is linked to heart disease, cancers, early deaths. Children are especially at risk. But at Seoul's Yongsan Family Park, you can find the little ones outside as usual.

MINHAE KIM: I came here to enjoy the sunlight and the warm weather with my baby.

HU: Minhae Kim watches over her 1 year old as he toddles around on the playground. She says she's mindful of pollution but didn't check the levels today before bringing her baby out. It echoes an unfazed sensibility of many parents at the park.

KIM: People say the air quality here these days is because of China.

JONATHAN SAMET: There's no doubt air pollution knows no borders, of course.

HU: Jonathan Samet is a an epidemiologist who heads the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California. China is bursting with industrial plants, vehicles and even its natural stuff. The yellow dust from its northern deserts picks up industrial pollutants when it blows over. But Samet says transboundary effects can't explain everything.

SAMET: What you have is the combination of what is being generated within Seoul and within the broader, very industrial environment of Korea added onto by transport of pollution from China. So South Koreans can point the finger at China, but, you know, it has to be pointed internally as well.

HU: Just how much pollution drifts over and how much is homegrown is something scientists at NASA are trying to help answer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK. And aircraft status?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Aircraft is good to go.

HU: Last month, NASA jets flew up and down the Korean coastline measuring air quality in a new study in partnership with Korea. Jim Crawford is a NASA scientist on the project.

JIM CRAWFORD: Here, by being able to go over the adjacent water and then over the peninsula, we can begin to do a much easier job of separating external influences from internal sources in the continent.

HU: The NASA planes sampled the air with 25 instruments operated by dozens of scientists on board. The flight runs are repeated at various altitudes flying as low as 1,000 feet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It's kind of like a heart monitor.


HU: Of particular concern is PM2.5. That's the name for dust particles so microscopic that they enter your bloodstream when they're inhaled. PM2.5 is laden with lead and arsenic, among other pathogens. East Asia's concentrations of this are the highest in the world. In Seoul, the PM2.5 daily average exceeded the WHO standard more than half the days in April. The epidemiologist Jonathan Samet.

SAMET: This is a problem of our megacities. You put millions of people together, they're all driving vehicles, there's industry. We just exceed the capacity environment to dilute.

HU: But it's tough to solve a problem that's not fully acknowledged. The Korean Economic Institute just completed a study researching Korean attitudes and media coverage of air pollution. Researcher Matthew Shapiro found the media don't cover it as a chronic problem, but instead as disparate spikes during the year. When it is covered - you guessed it.

MATTHEW SHAPIRO: They frame it as a China-based problem.

HU: While the South Korean president calls the country's poor air quality a, quote, "grave issue," the particulate matter numbers in Seoul have stayed stubbornly steady in recent years.

SHAPIRO: There has to be a much more complex understanding of the problem conveyed to the general public. If everyone is saying wear the mask, keep your kids indoors and wait until tomorrow, that's not a long-term solution.

HU: Out at the park, a longtime elementary school teacher Choi Wonjung says she didn't need numbers to convince her of the issue.

CHOI WONJUNG: (Through interpreter) A lot of the kids cough a lot more than they did before.

HU: Pollution is pernicious. The worst kind is too tiny to be seen, but its effects eventually show up. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

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