Air Pollution Is More Harmful Than You Think

Manila Bulletin, July 16, 2017 | Go to article overview

Air Pollution Is More Harmful Than You Think


By Alfredo N. Mendoza V

Air pollution may be one of the most dangerous aspects of public health that we underestimate and ignore. But there is no doubt that we should take air pollution seriously, especially when we realize that it can factor in the deterioration of anyone's health far worse than we once know.

This National Science Week, air quality takes center stage again since the promulgation of the Clean Air Act of 1999. We explore the other implications in being aware and really understanding air pollution through the expertise of Mylene Gonzaga-Cayetano, Ph.D., one of the country's leading experts in air quality.

Dr. Gonzaga-Cayetano is an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology (UP-IESM), where she has been teaching for 12 years now. Gonzaga-Cayetano is also the deputy director for academic affairs in the same institute. Aside from her administrative role, she is also a full-time researcher, supervising and spearheading UP-IESM's efforts in air quality research.

Air quality data

She, along with her team, gathers air quality data around the country, which tell where they originate from, and the kind of pollutants that are in the air. They then publish these studies in the hopes that they would translate to viable strategies and campaigns for policy-making.

According to Gonzaga-Cayetano, air pollution is an issue we must take seriously, considering that they pose a hazard to health more gravely than most of us might think. Her goal is to mainstream scientific knowledge of air quality into academic learning for students, and to make Filipinos understand why we should be aware of air pollution.

The primary concern of her work and research is the presence of organic compounds in the air called persistent organic pollutants or POPs. POPs are organic compounds that mimic the structure of bodily hormones. They're so small that they can be absorbed in the blood stream through breathing.

There are many subtypes of POPs, but all of them are carcinogenic, mainly because the body mistakes them from being natural hormones. And these POPs can come from a lot of common materials and objects like aerosols, fire retardants, electrical coatings in electronics, insecticides, anti-malaria and dengue fumigators, and other combustible materials like cigarettes and agricultural byproducts. The list doesn't end there. As science progresses further, the more we learn about emerging POPs.

"The alarming thing is that these [POPs] are the ones that really last in the environment. For example, if the POPs were emitted in the 1980s, they would still persist to this day. Our transformers before, the recognizable drum transformers, once contained PCBs--polychlorinatedbyphenics as its transformer oil. When emitted, they become POPs. Now they are banned, thanks to the Stockholm Convention. I was interested because PCBs are part of POPs, and the methods of testing them are the same with collecting particulate matter," Gonzaga-Cayetano said.

Personal advocacy

She takes the study of air quality not only as a profession, but a personal advocacy. Her lab constantly updates their work on the model of air pollution in Metro Manila. She also concentrates on local and international projects such as Dispersion Modelling of Particulate Matter in Metro Manila, and Air Quality Programs for Smaller Cities.

Before graduating BS Chemistry from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Gonzaga-Cayetano had tuberculosis, which made her stop her studies for a time. After recovering, she became interested in the study of particulate matter made by photocopiers.

"What I found out during that time, the lead content in the air was high. Particulate iron levels were also high in the air, but iron is a macronutrient--this was in 1999. And maybe, at that time, leaded fuels were not yet banned. …

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