Health experts in the Philippines lead the fight against dirty air

By Imelda V. Abano, 4 June 2019

Earth Journalism Network, The Philippines

MANILA -- Alarmed by the worsening impacts of air pollution in this country of more than 108 million people, health experts in the Philippines are pushing for the stricter enforcement of laws on clean air and environmental protection to tackle the challenges they pose to public health.

A view of a smog-choked Manila during sunset / Credit: Nonie Villanueva via Flickr

Air pollution is one of the biggest health emergencies in the Asia-Pacific region, with the Philippines recording 45.3 air pollution-related deaths for every 100,000 people – the third-highest in the world, according to a 2018 study by the World Health Organization. China ranks #1 with 81.5 recorded deaths followed by Mongolia with 48.8.

Those deaths are tied to fine particles in polluted air that penetrate deep into peoples’ lungs and cardiovascular systems, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and respiratory infections, such as pneumonia.

Around 2.2 million of the world’s 7 million premature deaths due to household and ambient air pollution are recorded each year in the Western Pacific Region, which includes the Philippines, the WHO study showed.

Paeng Lopez, a health energy campaigner at Health Care Without Harm Asia, said the Philippines needs to revisit government measures such as the Clean Air Act that were designed to address the problem and its causes.

“Air pollution is still a problem. Waste management is still a problem,” Lopez said. “We need to beat air pollution and address waste issues at the same time, as pollutants [are] being emitted, for instance, by burning piles of trash in the open.”

The Philippines Clean Air Act of 1999 outlines the government’s measures to reduce air pollution and incorporate environmental protection into its development plans, while the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act enacted in 2000 has provisions mandating for solid waste reduction and waste minimization measures, such as recycling, composting, re-use and other methods of waste disposal.

In recent years, however, the environmental department came out with an order that allows cement manufacturers to burn mixed waste to use as an alternative fuel in their facilities, Lopez said. And the government is now coming up with waste-to-energy guidelines that allow waste management facilities to circumvent a ban on waste burning.

“The government needs to implement, level up and improve the standard these laws set,” Lopez said, referring to the clean air and waste management acts.

His organization is part of a global initiative aimed at reducing the environmental footprint of the health care sector by promoting energy efficiency, waste management and use of safer chemicals.

Another organization working in the Philippines, the Healthcare for Clean Air Alliance, aims to highlight the health impacts of air pollution by pushing for the strict implementation of laws against air pollutants and helping improve the country’s air-quality monitoring standards.

Formed in 2018 and composed of health and environmental advocates, doctors, students and government agencies, the alliance is using a series of environmental campaigns to frame air pollution not just as an environmental problem but also as a health menace.

Efforts to curtail the Philippines’ dirty air must come with a strategy to establish the urgency of the issue, said Jonathan Jadloc, chair of the Philippine College of Physicians’ Advocacy Committee on Climate Change, which has recently started working with the government to improve education in the health sector and among the public of the problem.

“While many sectors are taking action, there is still a need to do more,” Jadloc said.

He suggested identifying the local sources of air pollution and increasing the awareness of its existence, intensifying campaigns for alternative clean sources of energy, encouraging the active involvement of health people and agencies, strengthening organizations working on pollution issues and, finally, urging the government to strengthen and implement existing laws regulating air pollution.

“The role of the health community is pivotal to make the adverse of coal and burning of fossil fuels known to the public,” he added.

The true burden of air pollution

One of the major causes of air pollution is coal-fired power plants, Jadloc noted. And pollution from coal burning and coal storage is linked to various respiratory diseases.

According to a joint study conducted by Greenpeace Philippines and Harvard University in 2016, coal-fired power plants expose everyone in the Philippines to toxic pollution, resulting in hundreds of premature deaths every year. The study also shows that coal accounts for 43 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions released annually from fossil fuel combustion, with 28 percent emitted from coal-fired power plants.

Based on the latest statistics from the Philippine Department of Energy (DOE), coal comprises 44.5 percent of the country’s energy mix. As of July 2016, there were 30 coal-operating contracts in the development and production phase, 48 coal operating contracts in the exploration phase and 83 small-scale coal mining operators. 

Aerial view of Manila on a clearer day / Credit: Imelda V. Abano

While the country is aiming to scale back its use of coal, the DOE stated in its 2016-2030 Philippine Energy Plan that coal will continue to form part of the country’s energy mix, contributing a 22.7 percent share both for power and non-power use.

Coal is also used as the baseload to supply the country’s growing electricity demand, with the DOE’s energy plan stating the department will continue to work on expanding the country’s domestic coal resource potential of around 2.53 billion metric tons.

“We need to divest our dependence from coal, and this can only be made possible by political will backed up with solid engineering and scientific solutions to source out more power from alternative sources like hydro, tidal, geothermal, wind and solar,” Jadloc said.

Improving air quality while fighting climate change

Climate Change Commission Secretary Emmanuel de Guzman said the Philippines has included reducing short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon and methane, in the national planning process as well as in the country’s system for measurement, reporting and validation for carbon emissions.

He said the government will also strive to achieve and maintain air quality guidelines and emission standards through the stricter implementation of the Philippine Clean Air Act.

In addition, the government is adopting fuel and vehicle standards set by the European Union to reduce levels of harmful vehicle emissions and is working on the rapid deployment of electric vehicles, De Guzman said. It’s enhancing mitigating measures for emissions from agriculture and is shifting toward renewable energy in an effort to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius as is called for in the Paris climate change agreement.

“Climate change should be an urgent public health issue as it poses a major health threat to people due to worsening air pollution and illnesses,” said De Guzman. “It is, therefore, crucial to address this if the world is to achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature goal.”

A new effort to partner with the health community could help advance public awareness.

In February, the Climate Change Commission signed an agreement with the health sector through the Philippine College of Physicians to develop a climate change curriculum and tackle public health challenges in 54 medical schools, tertiary health courses and conduct residency trainings in hospitals.

“Our climate change advocacy has gone a long way now in terms of bringing climate change and health issues such as air pollution into hospitals, clinics and health education,” Jadloc said. “Our partnership with the Commission is another challenge for us to address climate change and advance public health in the country.”


Click here to view story by Imelda V. Abano - EJN’s Content Coordinator for the Philippines