THIS November, we are commemorating National Clean Air Month. So what is the state of health of the air we breathe? Not so good. According to a report entitled “Aiming Higher: Benchmarking the Philippine Clean Air Act” released by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) and the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), air pollution is costing the Philippines trillions of pesos and causing tens of thousands of deaths in a year.

The report puts the yearly bill for neglecting air quality at $87.6 billion, or P 4.3 trillion. According to the most recent scientific evidence, approximately 66,000 premature deaths every year in the Philippines are linked to PM2.5 and NO2 pollution. That’s 180 deaths per day, which is higher that Covid-19 deaths, yet we do not have the same urgency in addressing pollution like we do with the dreaded virus.

Tiny particulate matter or PM2.5, are fine inhalable particles with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller. The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter, or 30 times larger than PM2.5. They are so tiny that they can go deep into our lungs.

Nitrogen dioxide on the other hand comes from road traffic and indoor sources such as tobacco smoke and cooking using gas, wood, oil or kerosene. It can cause damage to the human respiratory tract and increase a person's vulnerability to, and the severity of, respiratory infections and asthma. Long-term exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide can cause chronic lung disease.

How was the P4.3 trillion derived at? It is in the form of increased healthcare and welfare costs, as well as loss of labor and economic productivity as a result of air pollution-related health illnesses, disabilities, and even death. Vince Carlo Garcia, a research analyst with the ICSC and a co-author, said the degree to which Filipino’s long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of developing illnesses such as asthma, lung cancer and stroke, as well as comorbidities to Covid-19.

In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its recommended “safe levels” of air pollution based on growing scientific evidence that air pollution is more dangerous to human health than previously estimated. According to the CREA and ICSC report, if the WHO guidelines were met, the country’s annual air pollution-related deaths could be reduced by more than half while economic costs would reduce to a third.

The “Aim Higher” report showed sources of mobile, stationary, and area emissions have increased since the year 2000 but the policies that control emissions from each source have not kept up. The authors emphasized the full implementation of the Clean Air Act should be prioritized, especially as many of the solutions to air pollution have climate co-benefits. Note that the Clean Air Act, or RA 8749, is already 20 years old.

The strict lockdowns that were imposed at the start of the pandemic temporarily cleaned the air. Now that restrictions are easing up and most activities are returning to normal, pollution levels are expected to go up.