According to a recent Yale University report, Vietnam’s air quality is ranked 170 out of 178 countries. Using three measurements — air pollution, exceedance of safe limits and household air quality — it is difficult to know how they reached this conclusion. Few official air pollution statistics, both indoor and outdoor, are released in Vietnam, and only a handful of private individuals take regular readings.
Yet air quality in this country is a concern. It doesn’t take data to tell you one thing — in the past decade it’s gotten markedly worse. Cases of asthma are on the rise and air quality in the major cities, particularly Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, can sometimes be so bad that it’s difficult to breathe.
With this in mind, in February 2013 Word ran a survey of the air quality in Ho Chi Minh City. It was far from conclusive, but it showed that outdoor air pollution is often between two and five times the WHO-recommended ‘safe’ level. In August of the same year, we brought a ParticleScan Pro — a handheld laser particle counter — up to Hanoi and took measurements at various locations around the city. We compared results. On average, the air pollution in the capital was around 160,000 fine particles per litre of air. In Saigon it was 140,000. The upper threshold, according to WHO’s guidelines, should be 60,000.
Taking on Bad Air
Since 2013, Aron Szabo, the Vietnam distributor of IQ Air, a Swiss company producing indoor air purifying machines, has noticed an increased interest in the country’s air quality. “Two years ago no-one seemed to really care,” he says. “But now the embassies are starting to contact me. They’re very concerned.”
But it’s not just the embassies that are contacting Aron, it’s businesses as well.
As individuals we can’t do much about the outdoor environment — change has to come on the macro level. It requires nationwide policy and enforced regulation.
However, air pollution is often worse indoors. And since these environments are the places we live and work, we can have an immediate effect on their quality.
Says Aron: “You would expect the air quality inside to be better than outside. But it’s not. All air-conditioning in a closed environment does is circulate the air, keeping it within the same space. We spend 90 percent of our time indoors, which is why indoor air pollution is so much more dangerous than its equivalent outdoors.”
A number of Vietnam-based companies — including diabetes care company Novo Nordisk Vietnam and diamond manufacturer Rydiam Saigon — have already installed air purifiers on their premises, at their own expense. Elsewhere, the United Nations International School (UNIS) in Hanoi has created a protocol for taking daily air quality readings in their school. Over a four-day period in March their measurements moved between moderate (50,000 to 100,000 fine particles per litre of air) and unhealthy (150,000 to 200,000 fine particles per litre of air).
For the Kids
The International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC) is also taking daily readings. Says deputy headmaster Adrian Watts, “I do the tests at 7am. And we’ve had a student take regular tests — she does them at 9am, noon, 2pm and 4.30pm.”
He adds: “When it’s rainy and windy, the readings go down. They go up and down during the cycle of a day as well. They’re higher in the morning, then they decline into the early afternoon, and mid-afternoon they start to rise again.”
ISHCMC’s concern with air quality has led them towards the conclusions Novo Nordisk Vietnam and Rydiam Saigon have already arrived at. The school recently installed a hospital-quality air purifying system in the Early Years and Kindergarten classrooms, as well as in an open space called the Atrium.
“The type of pollution here, which is small-particle pollution, is most dangerous for the youngest students in the school,” explains Adrian, who confirms that the institution is committed to extending the programme to the rest of the school. “So the decision was made to have purer air for their classroom areas, as that’s where they are working most of the time, and to make those environments as nice as possible for the students.
“For us it’s about protecting the students we’ve got at the school, it’s about child welfare and child wellbeing. Our mission is to energise, engage and empower, because if the children are breathing poor air, then it makes them less energised, and if they’re less energised it makes their engagement less.”
Vietnam is a country still dealing with the big problems — infrastructure and development — which means the ‘details’, such as regulating factory emissions and exhaust fumes will take time.
For the time being, to ensure the health of ourselves, our families and our places of work, we need to take the air quality issue into our own hands. The only problem is the expense.
As Adrian says, it’s not cheap. However, he adds, “if you have a centralised air system and put everything in at source when you’re building a building, it is much much cheaper to install.”
Measured in fine particles per litre of air
0 – 50,000 — Good Air Quality
50,000 – 100,000 — Moderate
101,000 – 150,000 — Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
151,000 – 200,000 — Unhealthy
201,000 – 300,000 — Very Unhealthy
300,000 and above — Hazardous
In August 2013, the average air quality in Ho Chi Minh City was 140,000. In Hanoi it was 160,000.