South Korea joins ranks of world’s most polluted countries

Bryan Harris & Kang Buseong
A woman wearing a face mask walks in an area overlooking the city skyline in Seoul, South Korea.
Ed Jones | AFP | Getty Images

South Korea has joined the ranks of the world's most polluted countries, with air pollution in the first months of this year soaring to record levels.

Long associated with Asian capitals such as Beijing or Delhi, hazardous smog has for weeks blanketed Seoul — a city now appearing among the world's three most polluted in daily rankings.

And there is growing concern that much of the root cause of the toxic air, estimated to cost the country up to $9bn each year, lies at home and not in China as the government has claimed.

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Already this year authorities in South Korea have issued 85 ultrafine dust warnings, up more than 100 per cent from the 41 advisories in the same period last year.

Classified as a first-degree carcinogen by the World Health Organization, the invisible nanoparticles known as PM2.5 penetrate deep into the respiratory system and can trigger a variety of illnesses, including cancer.

An OECD report found that up to 9m South Koreans could die prematurely by 2060 as a result of current levels of air pollution — the worst projection among members of the group of mainly rich countries.

Many in South Korea blame pollutants wafting in from China — but experts say much of the pollution is homegrown.

"The government is sitting idly by while passing the buck to China," said Kim Shin-do, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Seoul.

"Only after we handle our own air pollution problems can we grasp the extent of air pollution or fine dust [coming from] the deserts in China and Mongolia."

The South Korean environment ministry attributes up to 80 per cent of the fine dust to overseas sources during periods of pronounced pollution.But Prof Kim believes China is to blame for only 20 per cent of South Korea's fine dust. Environmental group Greenpeace puts the figure at 30 per cent.

Pollution-tracking website AirVisual this week found three South Korean cities and no Chinese cities among the world's 10 most polluted.

Much of the country's pollutants come from vehicle emissions and construction or industrial sites. Power plants also play a crucial role — and energy officials are pushing to develop even more coal-powered capacity.

The government operates 53 coal-powered plants and intends to construct 20 more in the next five years. Ten ageing plants will be shut by 2025.

Between 2005 and last year, the capacity of the country's coal-fired power plants increased almost 95 per cent. Burning of the fossil fuel — a source of carbon dioxide emissions and smog — accounts for about 40 per cent of the country's energy generation.

Meanwhile, nuclear power's share has slipped to 30 per cent of power generated from 40 per cent in 2005 amid safety concerns and following a series of scandals.

"Most of the pollutants come from our living environment but the government has been blaming cars, China and even cooking mackerel fish for years," said Kim Dong-sul, a professor at Kyung Hee University.