September - December 2007
Power and poisons

A puff of a test

HIS TRUCK had been apprehended for smoke belching, so there was the driver, furiously pumping his vehicle’s pedal six times while it was parked inside the cavernous North Motor Vehicle Inspection Services (MVIS) building on East Avenue in Quezon City. Earlier, an MVIS technician had inserted a probe into the truck’s tailpipe. The probe was connected to an opacimeter, which measures the black soot from diesel vehicles, and now everyone was waiting for the device to deliver the verdict on the truck. After a few seconds, the opacimeter spat out a short strip of paper. The figures on it said the truck had registered an emission lower than the cut-off point of 2.5 k (light absorption coefficient), which means it had passed the test.

An MVIS technician inserts the opacimeter probe into a waiting truck. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Emission testing has been mandatory for all registered vehicles since 2003 as part of government efforts to reduce air pollution, which causes respiratory diseases including acute and chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, and cardiovascular diseases. But although more and more vehicles are said to be passing the test in recent years, some experts are not assured that the measure has had the kind of impact it should have on local air quality. That’s largely because emission testing centers do not measure all the pollutants coming from vehicles and have become notorious for unscrupulous practices that defeats the purpose of having any test done at all.

A World Bank study on the Philippines estimates that poor air quality accounts for five percent of all reported disease cases and four percent of all reported deaths in the country. This is said to cost the Philippines P6.76 billion per year in health expenditures and lost income. Urban residents are the ones most vulnerable to air pollution-related illnesses, as levels of particulate matter are estimated to be three times higher in urban areas than in rural areas.

Motor vehicles remain the biggest source of air pollution in the country, where over four million of these choke the roads. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) estimates that motor vehicles are responsible for up to 70 percent of air pollution in the country. Vehicle emissions include nitrogen oxide (NO), hydrocarbons (HC), and carbon monoxide (CO), but small particles, which are part of the soot coming out of vehicle tailpipes (and are also part of dust, loose soil, and so on), are said to pose the most health dangers.

Official figures show that local air quality improved by 12.5 percent over the past three years, which may be due to factors such as the increased use of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in taxis and roadside apprehension of smoke belchers. But even the DENR itself says much still remains to be done so that air pollution would decline to an “acceptable level.”

The DENR measures air pollution through the amount of total suspended particulates or TSP, otherwise known as dust. TSP levels in Metro Manila may have decreased over the past three years, but the 2006 average of 142 micrograms per normal cubic meter (ug/nm3) is still way above the standard of 90 ug/nm3.

Engineer Rene Timbang of the Department of Health (DOH)’s environmental health division, however, says that the DENR’s monitoring of TSP is of “no use.” He adds, “It has no health significance. What should be monitored is the fine particles.”

THE DOH itself, though, has not been not able to conduct any recent public health monitoring on air pollution due to a lack of budget, technical capability, and manpower. Its first such monitoring was done in 2004, with funds from the Asian Development Bank, and there has been no follow-up after that.

THREE machines used to measure smoke emissions, from the archaic to the latest device. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

And it’s not exactly accurate to say the DENR is concerned only with TSP. For at least three years or so, the DENR had been monitoring the small particles Timbang refers to. But its watch on these has been on hold since last year due to a dispute with the French contractor of 10 automatic monitoring stations scattered around Metro Manila.

In the meantime, the country is poised to shift next year to Euro 2 standards for motor vehicles. Authorities hope that the move could help decrease the emission of toxic gases by vehicles since the new standards are more stringent than the present ones. For example, in gasoline-powered cars, Euro 1 standards that are currently in use set CO emission limits at 4.05 g/km; by comparison, the Euro 2 standard is 3.28 g/km.

This may be partly why the Land Transportation Office (LTO) thought to give its MVIS centers a major facelift at the end of this year. About P114 million from the motor vehicle user’s fund will be used to upgrade existing MVIS hubs into motor vehicle inspection centers (MVIC), as well as to build new testing centers in Metro Manila and across the country.

Aside from the machines that test smoke emissions, the rest of the equipment inside the North MVIS are as obsolete as analog cell phones, according to MVIS technician Melecio Moreno. He says the various kinds equipment used to check headlights, brake, and underchassis of vehicles were the top of the line in Japan — in 1988.

The plan is to have new automated machines, which will speed up the inspection process. The LTO hopes that once the MVICs have been set up, private emission testing centers or PETCs will be relegated a lesser role. “They will serve as testing centers for smog,” says North MVIS chief Joel Donato.

The PETCs cater to private vehicles while the MVIS serve government vehicles, vehicles for hire, and diplomatic vehicles. The MVICs, however, will be taking care of all types of vehicles.

For now, though, the LTO has to put up with the PETCs, which seem to have become a thorn on its side. In 2004, LTO monitoring resulted in the suspension of 21 PETCs, while two others lost their authority to operate. Both the LTO and the DENR acknowledge that there are many reports of payoffs at PETCs. That is, there are vehicles that pass emissions test without even being there. There are also vehicles that don’t pass the test but are allowed to stay on the road anyway.

As of last year, there were some 330 accredited PETCs, where emission testing costs P350 and takes all of five minutes — about as much time as it would take to order fast food through a drive-through. (Emission testing at the MVIS, in comparison, ranges from P40 to P115, depending on the type of vehicle.)

The smoke emission gas analyzer used by PETCCs. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

After the technician poses for a picture next to the license plate, the engine is checked and the probe is quickly inserted into the tailpipe. The smoke emission gas analyzer measures carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, and a beeping computer generates the figures. Standards for the two gases depend on when the car was registered, with those registered for the first time since 2003 held to the most stringent ones.

The Clean Air Act provides emissions standards only for CO and HC. The newer emission machines for gasoline-type engines are capable of reading emissions from five gases, including nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter, but while PETCs and the MVIS possess these machines, the other gases aren’t measured because the law does not provide standards for them.

JULIAN AMADOR, director of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau, says the main problem with motor vehicles is maintenance. “If the vehicle is properly maintained, there’s a big improvement in [the use of] fuel,” he says. “The problem we have here is that vehicles aren’t properly maintained. Smoke belching happens when a vehicle isn’t maintained well, when [fuel] is not burned completely.”

At the very least, emission testing seems to have forced many vehicle owners into regularly taking their vehicles for a tune-up before they renew their registration, says Timbang.

Technician Moreno also says that emission testing has led to fewer smoke belchers along Edsa, although these fiends of fume are still a common sight in the metropolis. He adds that when the test was first introduced, 60 percent of vehicles that underwent it at the MVIS flunked — including those belonging to the LTO. Now, he says, only 10 to 20 percent of the vehicles fail the test. The failing rate is even lower among private vehicles.

EMB Director Julian Amador [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

But since there is no telling what could happen to a vehicle after its visit to a PETC or MVIS, the LTO conducts periodic impromptu emission testing along major thoroughfares during weekends. The DENR says, though, that the LTO’s program has not been that effective due to the lack of manpower. The environment department also hopes that local governments will step up campaigns to clean the air.

“Our vision is that air quality management in the region would be managed by the local government,” says Amador. As he sees it, local governments would provide and prescribe polices in order to improve the air, and also oversee the granting of permits and licenses, as well as enforcement.

One local government that is taking the lead in that direction is that of Makati City. Its ongoing Project Hangin is monitoring respiratory health-related illnesses with the DOH and the level of air pollution in major thoroughfares with the DENR. Makati will use these data to assess the level of air pollution in the city and improve its clean air campaign.

As it waits for other local governments to follow suit, the DENR says it will strengthen the integrity and credibility of PETCs, beef up its roadside enforcement, and improve liquid fuel in the transport system. An Asian Development Bank report also notes that challenges still remain regarding governance, uniform testing procedures, and results interpretation.