Korea issues contingency plans for fine dust

A man holds his baby while viewing central Seoul shrouded in heavy haze at an observation platform at "N Seoul Tower" located atop Mt. Namsan in central Seoul Feb 27

SOUTH KOREA - The South Korean government on Wednesday announced 24-hour emergency measures to reduce the health risks of fine dust amid mounting criticism of the accuracy of its forecasting.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government called the situation a "natural disaster" and said it would launch a special task force to monitor the air quality around the clock as the fine dust warning has already lasted for more than two days.

The plans also include banning the operations of city government vehicles and expanding the services of water trucks spraying roads to reduce dust.

"The fine dust warning has lasted for three days in a row. The case is unprecedented and we will step up emergency measures to solve the environmental disaster," an official from the city government said.

The sudden actions follow strong criticism by local media of the accuracy of the Ministry of Environment's daily forecasts of fine dust levels, which have caused public confusion.

In August 2013, the ministry launched a forecasting service of fine dust levels in major cities, including Seoul, as the country continuously battles smog blanketing much of the nation.

The forecast, however, received strong criticism after a series of failures to predict the level of smog in the air.

The ministry claimed the accuracy of its forecasts was 71.8 per cent, while Saenuri lawmakers said the accuracy rate was only 33.3 per cent this winter.

"It's a difficult task to predict the direction the wind will blow. Plus, the Chinese government is not unveiling official data on its pollution levels," said Lee Woo-won, an Environment Ministry official.

Over mounting criticism, Environment Minister Yoon Seong-kyu visited the Korea Metrological Administration's office in Seoul, creating new urgency for related government agencies to act.

"It is urgent that we increase manpower to oversee the forecasting service and to implement an accurate forecasting model that suits the country's geographical conditions," Yoon said. There are currently 17 employees in charge of the service, the ministry said.

According to environment experts, the toxic particles are carried by the westerlies blowing from China, where the smog has reached an "unbearable level," according to China's National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation. The surge of coal use in China for heating systems in the winter has worsened air quality.

Beijing's PM2.5 level on Monday was recorded at 239 micrograms per cubic meter, about nine times the World Health Organisation's recommended standard of 25 micrograms, according to the website of Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring.

Health authorities said toxic particles carried by winds from China can cause respiratory problems, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

On Monday, the Seoul municipal government issued an ultrafine dust warning, as the city's atmospheric concentration levels of PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) hit 98 micrograms per cubic meter. The level hit 109 micrograms on Tuesday and 90 micrograms on Wednesday, Seoul officials said.

The city issues the advisory when the average pollutant levels of 85 micrograms per cubic meter last for more than two hours.

"We cannot say for sure when this crisis is going to end. We will just have to wait and see," an official from the city's climate and air quality department said.