Metro Manila’s air and noise pollution

Every time we see the poor policemen at the street intersection, conducting the traffic, or the throng of commuters queuing up for their ride, one can’t help but feel worried for them.

It’s not so bad if they’re exposed to all the environmental air and noise pollution once in a long while; but if they’re constantly exposed to these hazards every day, there’s no question that they’re exacting a heavy toll on their health on the long run.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Environmental Management Bureau (DENR-EMB), air pollution in the National Capital Region appears to be getting worse, instead of improving. In the first half of the year, the air pollutant concentration has reached 130 micrograms per normal cubic meter (µg/Ncm) in terms of total suspended particulates (TSP), significantly higher than the 106 µg/Ncm recorded at year’s end in 2014. The maximum safe level of air pollutant concentration is below 90 µg/Ncm.

Needless to say, the main source of these particulate pollutants in the thoroughfares of Metro Manila are the hundreds of thousands of motor vehicles, which—with all the road constructions going on, aggravated by rains and floods—can create what has now been called as a carmageddon. During such instances, the pollutant readings can reach up to 1,000 µg/Ncm, similar to New Year’s eve.

With all the motor vehicles idling in traffic, one can just imagine the severity of the air pollution our traffic enforces and commuters are exposed to.

Indeed, the warning of some physicians that traffic could ‘kill’ is not a remote hyperbole. It may not kill swiftly—though some can have a heart attack because of the pollution and the stress of the traffic—but for most, it kills softly but surely.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the very fine pollutants can find its way deep into the lungs, causing various lung, heart and other ailments; and it is to blame for 3.2 million preventable deaths worldwide every year.

Aside from the particulate pollution, the noise pollution caused by road traffic noise can also be hazardous to health. A London study published by Dr. Jaana I. Halonen et al. found that long-term exposure to traffic noise was linked with modest, but nonetheless significant risks of all-cause mortality, and cardiovascular (CV) mortality and morbidity in the general population. It was particularly linked to stroke risk in the elderly.

Previous studies linked road traffic noise to hypertension but the effect appears to extend beyond simply increasing the blood pressure. It adversely affects all-cause mortality in adults [RR 1.04 (1.00–1.07)] in areas with increased noise >60 vs. <55 dB. There was also a tendency for a positive but non-significant associations with mortality for CV and ischemic heart disease, and stroke.

Road traffic noise, almost inseparable from air pollution, poses a significant environmental burden of disease which is estimated to be the second largest, topped only by airborne particulate matter.

It’s really high time for our government to seriously address air and noise pollution caused by road traffic. Draconian measures may have to be employed like regulating the registration of motor vehicles in the country. We now have close to 7.5 million registered cars, buses and jeepneys; and 75 percent of the road pollution is coming from them.

Air and road traffic noise pollution have already reached the level of a public health menace. We just can’t turn a blind eye on it, pretending it’s simply a cause of inconvenience, but not a health hazard.

Vital Signs Issue 80 Vol. 4, October 1-31 2015