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Our bad air days

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Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail F. Valte issued a press statement over the weekend that P-Noy “developed body malaise, fever and allergic rhinitis. The diagnosis of the President's doctors was Influenza and Allergic Rhinitis. He rested most of yesterday.”

It must have been a really bad case of flu and rhinitis for P-Noy to miss a meeting with visiting IMF head Christine Lagarde. I realize we don’t need the IMF as much as we used to but given the world’s precarious financial situation, P-Noy missed being personally briefed by Ms Lagarde, whose words can move the world’s financial markets.

Perhaps P-Noy is trying to quickly get his health back in time for the ASEAN Summit meeting in Cambodia. Given current regional tensions, P-Noy simply can’t miss that Summit meeting. It will also be attended by US President Obama.

If Ms Valte’s account of P-Noy’s doctors diagnosis is
accurate, there is reason for rejoicing. No, I don’t mean we should rejoice because P-Noy got sick with something called allergic rhinitis. We should rejoice because that may just make P-Noy take note of our bad air pollution problem in Metro Manila.

I am not surprised P-Noy has that health problem. For one thing, he is a heavy smoker. For another, he is breathing the same polluted air that all of us breathe day in and day out.

I know it has gotten worse over the past few weeks. The moody weather with unexpected rain showers have combined with our bad air to make a lot of people feeling what Ms Valte calls “body malaise, fever and allergic rhinitis.” Over the past two weeks, I have also been battling a recurrent threat of flu and yes, allergic rhinitis. And I haven’t smoked a stick of cigarette ever.

This thing with allergic rhinitis is something I have had for many years now. It is such that I now buy enough of the generic
version of Claritin and Zyrtec from Costco to last me a year. I have to take one or the other every time I get a bout of allergic rhinitis that becomes unbearable. The branded versions of these drugs available here are just too expensive even with the senior citizen discount.

Doctors tell me it is the extremely polluted air we breathe that causes it. My brother-in-law who has been a practicing pediatrician for over 40 years also suffers from this ailment. Worse, he told me that over the past few years, he noticed an alarming number of babies as young as a couple of months old already suffering from it too.

I suspect, P-Noy has had this allergic rhinitis for a number of years now and he probably thought it was his chain smoking that is causing it. I understand smoking aggravates it but the polluted air we breathe into our lungs is the basic cause.

That’s not so difficult to understand. All those vehicle fumes, factory emissions and
the dust floating in the air we breathe all have enough chemical substances that irritate our sinuses and our lungs enough to cause allergy. Those who also have asthma must really be suffering more.

The impact on our productivity must be immense. We could all work better if we felt better. It would be safe to assume that a large majority of working age Metro Manila residents are afflicted with the same health problem. Sometimes, it is called sinusitis. All those people constantly sniffing are also suffering from headaches that sometimes mimic high blood pressure.

I know. I am one of those. I also have this post-nasal drip every morning that irritates my throat enough to cause me to cough a lot. I have just sort of learned to live with it. Often enough when I travel to places where the air is a lot cleaner, these symptoms disappear.

In the past, it was enough to drive an hour or two out of Metro Manila and the air becomes clean
enough to be rid of the problem. Not any more. Not even in Baguio. In fact, it is worse in Baguio these days. Not only do you see garbage and pollution all around, you breathe the fumes of all those diesel powered jeepneys into your lungs too.

That’s why I am happy to learn from Abi Valte that P-Noy is sick of the same thing too. Maybe, his personal experience with allergic rhinitis will make him take the air pollution problem more seriously. Maybe, his personal attention will make law enforcement in this area a lot more effective.

Take the pollution coming from vehicles. I am sure P-Noy knows the LTO is to blame for lax enforcement of anti-pollution rules for vehicles. The so called test they allegedly conduct before we are allowed to register our cars is a sham, just like the drug test for drivers. If it isn’t, how come we always see jeepneys, buses, FX taxis, etc emitting thick black smoke from their tailpipes in city
streets?

But the smoke we don’t see from those tailpipes can be even more deadly. Some of the gasoline additives they use can even be cancer-producing. All that benzene among other chemicals is even now causing irreparable damage to our lungs. These pollutants are as bad as tobacco smoke. Considering that most of us spend hours stuck in traffic with all those idling engines spewing out noxious smoke, we cut our life expectancy by inhaling all that poison daily.

I always shudder every time I get to see that thick fog of pollutants that envelop the metro area from vantage point of Antipolo. The Eugenio Lopez Center along Sumulong Highway is nestled on top of a hill and can give you such a scary panoramic view of Metro Manila early in the morning. You see the smog and you know that is the garbage you breathe into your lungs where you work and live down there.

I like the way Health Secretary Enrique Ona is going hammer and tongs
fighting tobacco smoking. I hope he succeeds with getting a higher sin tax so we can minimize this form of air pollution. But Dr Ona must also get serious about other causes of air pollution. He must nag his boss and his colleagues in the Cabinet who can do something about this problem.

There was a time when pollution monitors were placed in key areas of the city. All I remember is that the numbers shown in those monitors confirm our worse fears about the state of air pollution in Metro Manila. Now those monitors are gone. The machines just gave up. Or the politicians took those monitors away because having these monitors show high readings only prove how incompetent they are.

That is why the claim of DENR Secretary Ramon Paje that the pollution level in Metro Manila has improved is totally meaningless and incredible to me. He claims the amount of total suspended particulates (TSP) or solid pollutants, such as dust and soot in the air has
decreased.

Paje also makes the same claim about the level of particulate matter 10 microns in diameter or smaller (PM10). PM10 is considered more harmful to human health as its finer particles, when inhaled, can penetrate the lungs, leading to more severe pulmonary or respiratory illnesses.

Of course, Paje didn’t say what level is considered safe. He only said the level decreased by 20 per cent since January. This sounds like a typical government press release to make it seem like they are doing their job.

Now, the only monitor that matters to me is the headache I wake up with in the morning, coupled with a post-nasal drip, an itchy throat and a lot of sniffing and coughing. Sometimes the anti- allergy medicines work. Sometimes, I wonder if taking these medicines is worth the bother given our air quality.

Hopefully, P-Noy’s doctors will do all of us a favor and tell the President he will continue to suffer a chronic
problem of allergic rhinitis unless the air he breathes, same air we do breathe, is made cleaner. I hate to think that the day will come when our air becomes poisonous enough to require us to wear oxygen masks every time we go outdoors.

There are many things we bitch about the incompetence of government but nothing is as deadly or injurious to our health as this inability to enforce air pollution laws. This is one time P-Noy’s self interest is perfectly aligned with ours. Let us hope and pray he acts accordingly.

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Boo Chanco's e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.