What is “yellow dust season?”

Hide Your Children, Hide Your Respiratory Systems, Yellow Dust Season Is Back!

Written by Tayani van Eeden

For generations in Korea, spring has meant the approach of “yellow dust season”, which is a climatic phenomenon originating in the dry deserts of China and Mongolia. Dense clouds of fine soil particles are picked up by strong winds and blown across Eastern Asia.

Due largely to increases in industrialization and deforestation in China, dust storms have become much worse in recent years, often carrying harmful oxides and toxic waste. These storms used to occur mainly between the months of March and May, but according to local physician Dr. Seung Gwan Kang, of Geo Med, an increase of patients are suffering from yellow dust pollution recently. Worst, storms are being reported all-year-round now, with some clouds dense and strong enough to travel as far east as the United States.

So how worried should people really be? And, what can we do to protect ourselves

As with most matters in Korea, it all depends on age. Yellow dust can create visibility problems, irritate soft tissues in the eyes, nose and throat and can cause respiratory and cardiovascular problems in the very young and elderly.

Korea has a three-tiered warning system run by the KMA (Korea Meteorological Association) that can be checked for appropriate safety recommendations on a daily basis – albeit in Korean and using Internet Explorer. Alternatively, “Asia Air Quality” is a free and easy-to-use app.

When a dust storm hits, residents are advised that sensitive groups (the young and the elderly) remain indoors, and that everyone in the general population drink a lot of water, remove their contact lenses if used, avoid strenuous outdoor activities and wear long sleeves and facemasks outdoors.

Sadly, not just any mask will do. Most masks are insufficient in protecting against the truly harmful particles in yellow dust. PM-10 are airborne particles 10 micrometers or less in diameter which slip right through cloth masks and are the main cause of respiratory problems. To be safe, you can go to your local pharmacy and request a mask that meets KFDA standards. Look for the Yellow Dust Mask (홍사마스크) on the packaging. Dr. Kang also stresses the importance of disposing masks after a single use.

Environmental ministers from China, South Korea and Japan meet annually, but thus far the talks have not resulted in much more than tree planting projects. China has independently increased its renewable energy investments by over 400 percent during the last decade, but even so, it is estimated that pollution cost China roughly 3.5percent of its GDP in 2010, and the country’s life expectancy has decreased by almost 6 years.

Korea has made significant strides in combatting air pollution, resulting in Seoul’s average concentration of PM-10 falling to almost half its usual numbers in 2012. But until China matches its efforts, Korean residents will have no choice but to continue to seal up their windows and close their doors.

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