A breath of hope for clean, healthy air

Cars and buses crowd Edsa. The number of cars in Metro Manila still keeps on rising as the Philippines copes up with huge traffic and air pollution.


Linda de Guzman (not her real name) goes to work at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig City in Metro Manila every day. She is fortunate, because as a call-center agent, her shift changes from time to time.

“It is okay because, sometimes, my team works the night shift. There is no traffic. Morning shift is bad news for us because we have to deal with the daily traffic problem in Metro Manila,” she said in a recent interview with the BusinessMirror as they happened to ride the same bus on their way to Manila.

But Linda says traffic is not the only problem for people like her, who has asthma. Once, she said, she had to go straight to the company clinic when she had an attack.

“The pollution is heavy. I can bear sitting in a bus or jeep for hours because of the traffic. But the smoke is just too much for me,” she said.

Riding the Metro Rail Transit (MRT) is also not an option because the long queue alone takes longer than to wait for a bus and squeeze her way inside.

Like Linda, 12 million Filipinos who live or work in Metro Manila endure the traffic and the polluted air that bring serious health risks.

On June 23, 1999, then-President Joseph Estrada signed into law Republic Act 8749, or the Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999, that provides for a comprehensive air-pollution control policy in the Philippines. The law primarily recognizes citizens’ right to breathe clean air.


Fatal traffic jam, air pollution

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is a major environmental risk to health.   By reducing air-pollution levels, countries can reduce the burden of disease from stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.

The WHO said ambient or outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. Some 88 percent of those premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, with the greatest number from the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions. In the Philippines air pollution can be fatal, especially because of the monstrous traffic, health experts and clean-air advocates say. The Coalition of Clean Air Advocates of the Philippines (CCAAP) last year issued a strong statement against polluters and concerned government agencies, as it warns the public about the fatal effect of traffic in Metro Manila because of air pollution. CCAAP President Leo O. Olarte, a medical doctor, said air pollution could be deadly because of the millions of motor vehicles plying daily in the streets of Metro Manila.

Emitting deadly smoke, at the same time, can choke lungs and lead to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, or cause instant death because of hypertension, heart attack and stroke. “Motor-vehicle traffic aggravates all the risk factors in all these dangerous diseases,” he said.

Exposure to smoke emitted by motor vehicles while caught in the middle of traffic in Metro Manila, at home or workplace, could trigger life-threatening episodes of heart attack and stroke, and could lead to sudden death even when a patient is inside an air-conditioned motor vehicle, Olarte warned.


Poor law enforcement, graft and corruption

Also a lawyer, Olarte led the group’s filing of graft and corruption cases at the Ombudsman against several officials of the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and Department of Trade and Industry last year for violation and nonimplementation of certain provisions of the Philippine Clean Air Act of 1999.

The group has been blaming the poor implementation of the law on mandating emission tests on all motor vehicles.  Section 22, Paragraph 5 of the Philippine Clean Air Act states that, “No motor-vehicle registration shall be issued unless such motor vehicle passes the emission-testing requirement promulgated in accordance with this Act. Such testing shall be conducted by the DOTC [Department of Transporation and Communacations] or its authorized inspection centers within 60 days prior to date of registration.”

The group blamed the corrupt practices at the LTO, as well as at the government-accredited private motor-vehicle emission-testing centers for allowing “no-show” and “nonappearance” of motor vehicles in exchange for extra fees.

Mike Aragon, CCAAP SVP for Communications and Public Relations, was alarmed that air quality in Metro Manila remains poor.

“Imagine, you can get an emission test [with passing] results without showing up [by paying] P500?” he lamented during an interview with the BusinessMirror on Wednesday.  Law enforcers also fail to strictly enforce the antismoke belching law, which aggravates air pollution in Metro Manila, Aragon said. He added that corrupt practices must stop to reduce the level of air pollution from motor vehicle in Metro Manila.


Support for cleaner air

On January 22, as part of the campaign for cleaner air, CCAAP, in partnership with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), launched the first of a series of consultative meetings.

The National Capital Region Airshed Consultative Meeting paved the way for the signing of a memorandum of agreement between concerned government agencies and various passenger-utility jeepney (PUJ) organizations for the conduct of free emission tests in the garage or designated passenger jeepney terminals.

Director Juan Miguel Cuna of the DENR-Environment Management Bureau led the meeting, which brought together the transport sector, especially PUJ operators, and other stakeholders to discuss strategies to improve air quality, particularly in Metro Manila. The PUJ organizations include the Liga ng Transportasyon at Operators sa Pilipinas, Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations, Federation of Jeepney Operators and Drivers Association of the Philippines and Pangkalahatang Sanggunian Manila and Suburbs Drivers Association Nationwide.

Cuna said in a news release issued by DENR and CCAP that emission tests in garages would be used to assess the current emission compliance of PUJs in Metro Manila.

The DENR will also provide technical assistance to the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) and the LTO on the possible establishment of their antismoke belching operations; and help enhance their capacity to monitor and evaluate the progress of the testing; and make the test results available to the public.

According to Aragon, the emission tests of PUJs will form part and serve as baseline data from which future tests will be compared to determine whether air quality is going to the right direction.

He said the civil society, including academe, church and youth, will be tapped to sustain the NCR Airshed Consultative Meeting to push motorists and concerned government agencies to do their part.

“Hopefully, with the NCR Airshed Consultative Meetings, we can bring down air pollution in Metro Manila by June 30,” Aragon said. “If concerned government agencies will cooperate and do their part,” he emphasized.


Air quality improving

Air quality in Metro Manila, the country’s capital region, is improving and it will continue to improve this year, Environment Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje promised.

“The good news is that we can expect better air quality in Metro Manila this year with the policy prescribing the use of Euro 4 fuel for all motor vehicles,” Paje said at a news conference in early this month.

He attributed the improvement in air quality in Metro Manila to the various initiatives of the government that target air pollution from mobile sources, particularly motor-vehicle emission, which contributes 80 percent to the air-pollution problem.  The DENR said air-pollution in Metro Manila have gone down by 28 percent as of December 2015 from the 2010 level.  Citing reports gathered from the 17 air-quality monitoring stations strategically located in various parts of Metro Manila during the period, total suspended particulates (TSP) level also went down to just 101 unit gram per normal cubic meter (µg/Ncm) during the July-to-December 2015 period compared to 106 µg/Ncm recorded during the same period in 2014. This is 11 µg/Ncm shy of achieving the 90 µg/Ncm standard safe level for ambient air quality.


Cleaner fuel

The policy mandating the use of Euro 4 fuel, Paje said, will greatly help improve air quality in Metro Manila, as pump gasoline and diesel will be selling cleaner fuel from now on, in lieu of the previous Euro 2 fuel standard. Euro 4 has 50 parts per million (ppm) sulfur, 1-percent benzene and a 35-percent limit on aromatics. Euro 2 has 500 ppm sulfur, 5-percent benzene and no limit on aromatics.

“With all motor vehicles using Euro 4 fuel and diesel, the air pollution from motor vehicle will go down,” Paje said.  The environment chief said the government is also working to enforce the law against smoke belching and has been closely coordinating with concerned government agencies, including the DOTC, particularly the LTO and various stakeholders, to improve air quality.

This includes strict implementation of the smoke-emission tests for all motor vehicles before car registration is renewed.

Recognizing the monstrous traffic in Metro Manila as part of the problem, Paje said the DENR is also coordinating with the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) to ease traffic congestion, particularly along Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (Edsa).

The DENR chief is confident of attaining the safe level for ambient air quality by the end of the year by addressing the traffic problem.


Easier said than done

Addressing Metro Manila’s traffic woes, however, is easier said than done. With an estimated population of 12 million, the NCR plays host to the most number of motor vehicles, which come from various parts of Luzon every day. The huge volume of motor vehicles converging in Metro Manila during rush hours create a monstrous traffic every day. Critics have been urging the government to address Metro Manila’s traffic problem and improve mass public transportation systems, such as the MRT and Light Rail Transit (LRT).According to the MMDA, in Edsa alone, the average volume of motor vehicles during peak hours exceed its capacity.  Lawyer Crisanto Saruca, director of the MMDA Traffic Discipline Office, said during peak hours, 1,600 vehicles per lane per direction occupy Edsa. The capacity of Edsa is 1,200 vehicles per lane per direction, he said. Traffic along Edsa, the main artery in Metro Manila, spills over in other major thoroughfares.

Around 80 percent of the motor vehicles are private vehicles, he said.

“The volume of vehicles is the biggest problem. Of course, we also have problems with infrastructure and mass transportation. But the volume of vehicles exceeding the capacity of Edsa causes the monstrous traffic,” Saruca said.


Traffic discipline ‘a must’

The perennial traffic woes can be addressed by instilling traffic discipline, Saruca said.

“The way motorists drive, the way they park, the way they stop to load or unload passengers and the way they violate traffic rules all point to one thing: they lack discipline,” he said.

To help reduce the volume of motor vehicles, particularly along Edsa, the MMDA continues to implement the Unified Vehicular Volume Reduction Program. Theoretically, the scheme, also known as “number coding,” reduces the volume of motor vehicles, during peak hours by 20 percent.

The campaign to apprehend violators of the number-coding scheme, he said, is no letup, as well as against private motorists using the exclusive bus lane along Edsa.

The MMDA is also encouraging the public to use mass public-transport system, such as LRT and MRT or buses, to help ease traffic congestion on Edsa and other major thoroughfares. “Imagine if 10 motorists decide to take the bus, then we have 10 cars less on Edsa. This means 10 cars less causing pollution on Edsa,” he said.

With the intensive campaign for traffic discipline, Saruca said, there is always a breath of hope in easing traffic congestion in Metro Manila, and hopefully, so will cleaner and healthier air.


Image Credits: Stephanie Tumampos


Jonathan L. Mayuga

Jonathan L. Mayuga is a journalist for more than 15 years. He is a product of the University of the East – Manila. An awardee of the J. G. Burgos Biotech Journalism Awards, BrightLeaf Agricultural Journalism Awards, Binhi Agricultural Journalism Awards, and Sarihay Environmental Journalism Awards.