yellow dust

June 12, 2017

The yellow dust situation in Korea this spring has been the worst in two years, with the PM10 reading has reached 1000μg (1000 micrograms) for the first time since April 15, 2015. Many people in Korea are scared to go out during the day or even open their windows, lest the dust enter their homes and cause various health problems, of which there are many.

The first records of yellow dust in Korea date back to the Silla Dynasty (174 A.D.). On March 22, 1549, it was recorded that “At Jeonju and Namwon in the Jeolla province…there was a fog that looked like smoke creeping into every corner in all directions. The tiles on the house roofs, grass on the fields and leaves on the trees were entirely covered by yellow-brown and white dusts.” As this record shows, yellow dust is basically small dust particles that are inhalable, and thus cause many health damages.

The problem yellow dust is causing is evident: respiratory diseases, delayed flights due to poor air quality, and so on. What isn’t so black and white is the cause of yellow dust. It is a commonly held belief in Korea that all of the yellow dust is flying over from China. However, William Brune, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State, says that “[yellow dust] is an interesting mixture of all the pollution from China, from Seoul itself…There’s a lot going on, much more than people suspected.”

Turns out, yellow dust is caused by natural sources, such as the Gobi Desert. However, fine and ultrafine dust is largely of man-made origin, and is what causes most of the health problems associated with yellow dust. Dongmug Kang, a researcher from Korea, has discovered that “the major anthropogenic source of the dust is combustion products of fossil fuel. Approximately 30% of sulfuric acid and 40% of nitric acid in ambient air in Korea might have been migrated from China.”

Inhaling such fine and ultrafine dust can cause many diseases ?such as asthma, tuberculosis, or allergic rhinitis. The fine dust irritates the mucous membrane, which can cause difficulties in breathing and sore throats. To alleviate these symptoms, Dr. Ahn Kang-mo suggests “[avoiding] going outside when there is yellow dust, and to wear long-sleeved clothing to minimize dust exposure. People should also wash their hands and feet when they return home from outside.”

Although it is possible to take cautionary measures such as wearing masks or washing your hands often, the root of the problem must be solved to prevent such phenomenon from continuing. Since 2007, Korea and China have been putting in collaborative efforts to tackle this issue, such as reforesting the source regions. China has already planted 12 billion trees, but the problem hasn’t been solved due to extremely strong winds in some regions that simply topple over trees.

The problem of yellow dust has been affecting the lives of Korean citizens ever since the Silla Dynasty. Though the health effects of yellow dust have been minimized due to developments in sanitation and medicine, more work has to be done to get to the root of the problem. Currently, Team of scientists funded by NASA are initiating a 6 week project to find out the cause of air pollution in Korea. Hopefully, through the many initiatives currently in action, Korea’s yellow dust problem will disappear soon.

<Grace Lee, KIS 11th Grade>


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