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‘Fake news’ fuels smog fears

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A man wears a mask as smoke is released from a factory chimney behind him in Phnom Penh in 2017. The Ministry of Environment will begin keeping tabs the city’s air quality with a PM2.5 monitor. Hong Menea

‘Fake news’ fuels smog fears

The Ministry of Environment has said concerns over Phnom Penh’s air quality are being fuelled by “fake news” on social media sites by companies aiming to promote the sale of air quality testing kits.

“There has been a lot of fake news claiming that air pollution from Thailand is affecting Cambodian air quality. It was spread by people who aim to sell air quality testing products for their own benefit,” Neth Pheaktra, the ministry’s secretary of state and spokesman told The Post.

A number of Cambodian Facebook users shared data from the website AirVisual – operated by IQAir – which also sells personal and commercial scale air cleaning products as well as air quality monitors.

One of the Facebook posts, which shared an exaggerated PM2.5 level [particulate matter], advertised the sale of facemasks, while another touted a brand of air purifiers meant for home use.

IQAir’s website claimed Phnom Penh’s PM2.5 reading was at 152, while the ministry’s monitors registered a PM2.5 reading of around 25 on February 25.

The ministry does not follow an international standard for defining air quality but lists a PM2.5 reading of 50 as the level at which concerns arise.

Air pollution levels came perilously close to that threshold between February 16 to 18 but did not surpass it, according to measurements released on its website.

The US Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] guidelines state that a PM2.5 reading of 27 is “a great day to be outside” – and falls under the designation of “good” – the highest possible rating on a scale out of six categories.

Meanwhile, a PM2.5 reading of 152 is considered “unhealthy” for “everyone” – according to the EPA – and merits the worst possible rating on the scale.

At this level, EPA guidelines recommend that people “avoid prolonged or heavy exertion. Move activities indoors or reschedule to a time when the air quality is better”.

PM2.5 measures particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. Risks associated with inhaling higher levels of PM2.5 particulates like carbon monoxide, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide include cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses and even cancer.

“A visual assessment isn’t enough to make a decision on air quality. [The ministry’s] machines are very accurate, we got technical assistance from Japan to monitor air and water quality,” said Pheaktra.

He said the ministry has deployed three PM2.5 measurement devices in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and Preah Sihanouk provinces.

“The PM2.5 readings measure particulates of 0 to 0.0025mm. If you compare it to a strand of hair, it’s 16 times smaller,” said Pheaktra.

The IQAir website indicates that Air Quality Index [AQI] measurements from the Kingdom are crowd-sourced by its own indoor machine. There were only two such machines providing data to the site on Tuesday – both located in Phnom Penh.

Yet, the website reported a PM2.5 of 148 in Sandan in Preah Sihanoukville province, where AirVisual does not show any users contributing data.

“People tried to spread fake information through Facebook because of the air pollution in Bangkok. They don’t think about [how it affects] Cambodian people."

“According to our monitoring, the air quality in Cambodia was not affected by the air pollution in Thailand, so our air quality is very good,” said Pheaktra.

The capital of neighbouring Thailand recently experienced a smog crisis. Amid school closures and spraying water from drones, Thai authorities also urged citizens to wear N95 or KN95 dust masks.

“In Phnom Penh, we have 500,000 cars circulating and 1.2 million [motorcycles] on our roads. That number is low enough not to cause major concerns. When compared to Bangkok [where there are] six million cars . . . there is an impact, but it’s very small,” he said.

“I don’t recommend that people always wear a mask, but if travelling [far] it doesn’t hurt because even a small amount of pollution can affect [your] health. Still, it’s not recommended because the air quality [in Cambodia] is very good."

“At the same time, we’re appealing to citizens not to burn the forest or rubbish, which can provoke air pollution [in the future],” said Pheaktra.

The ministry reported in October last year that about 48 per cent of Cambodian rubbish was either burned or thrown into water bodies.

“Burning garbage without using the right technique causes many problems. Plastic bags have a number of toxic substances so burning it spreads [dioxins] into the air. That not only destroys the ozone layer, the air and the environment but also people’s health.” said Pheaktra.

Attempts to reach IQAir through email did not solicit a response.

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