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Korea Blog: Bad Air Days in Seoul

Last week a voice boomed out of the speaker in my wall and told me not to go outside. One might more readily associate un-mutable commands broadcast directly into the home more with North Korea than South, but we live with them here in Seoul as well. Or at least many residents of apartment buildings above a certain size do, though through their speakers come piped not the national anthem or the stirring words of the country’s great leaders but information about renovation work on one floor or another, updates on the ever-shifting local garbage disposal policy, and announcements of impending visits from the gas-meter reader. Sometimes they also issue warnings about bad air days.

Other systems operate for the same purpose on a wider scale, such as the emergency alerts sent out to every mobile phone in the area when the measurements of the fine particulate matter floating around pass a certain threshold. The means of communication about this condition seem to strike many an observer as nearly as dystopian as the condition itself, though among expatriates talk about the air quality in Seoul has, in recent years, taken on an if-Bush-wins-I-swear-I’m-moving-to-Canada edge of obsessive frustration. Many Westerners here check the real-time air quality index daily or even more often; some post about it on social media, frequently and to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Why does Seoul’s air get so bad? For a time, the most often heard explanations by far simply blamed China. But the ever-increasing number of officially unhealthy days per year has prompted more rigorous analyses of the real causes, most recently in partnership with scientists from NASA. The research so far says that about half of the pollution inhaled in South Korea comes from sources in South Korea, be they cars and trucks, factories, or power plants (often coal). Seoul may have more days of healthy air per year than the likes of Beijing and Shanghai, but the country as a whole still comes in nearly at the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, air-quality rankings, above only Turkey.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.