[EDITORIALS]Yellow sand is a peril

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[EDITORIALS]Yellow sand is a peril

The worst sandstorms in 40 years, since the beginning of meteorological observations, have shut down schools and are increasing damage on the social and economic fronts. "Yellow sand" blown across the ocean from China has become more than just an unwelcome natural phenomenon to put up with every spring. It is as bad as any natural disaster. But the response by the government has failed to go beyond elementary activities of forecasting the arrival of the storm and measuring the amount of dust in the wind after it is already here.

People are already suffering from the third wave of yellow sand this year, and some are showing signs of a phobia of the phenomenon. The measurement of dust particles in the air early Friday morning showed as much as 2,266 micrograms per cubic meter, 32 times the domestic environmental standard of 70 micrograms per cubic meter and 37 times the annual average of 60 micrograms. This is like getting dumped with buckets of dust over and over again ?and this dust contains iron, manganese, nickel and all sorts of other harmful substances.

People are lining up at hospitals and pharmacies complaining of eye trouble, respiratory problems and asthmatic coughs. Sharply reduced visibility has thrown off the air flight schedule with scores of domestic flights canceled for the second day in a row.

On the industrial front, the war against dust is on in full swing, especially in the semiconductor, electronics and precision mechanical industries. The threat of increased defect rates has air cleaning systems turned up to maximum and has doubled the use of air showers.

Livestock farmers are worried that the sandstorm will bring back the nightmare of foot-and-mouth disease that swept across our farms two springs ago. The cause of the epidemic then has not been established, but transmission by yellow sand has been suspected, pushing farmers to cover up haystacks and sheds with plastic and stepping up the pace of cleaning and disinfecting.

What is of greater concern is that the phenomenon is progressively worsening each year. Forecasts have put up to four more waves of sandstorms just as bad as this one before summer arrives. Finding fundamental measures to stop the yellow sand phenomenon is a project that will take decades, because it involves restoring the ecology of the desert regions of China. Korea, Japan and China have agreed in principle to work closely on this project, and what is needed now is diplomatic wisdom to put this determination into practical execution.

There must also be measures closer to home to minimize damage from the phenomenon. One such measure is to start issuing "dust warnings" just as there are "ozone warnings" during the summer because of harmful levels of that gas in the atmosphere. Satellite data should be used to rate dust levels and response plans should be communicated to the public. We should do better than being limited to passive responses as incompetent as deciding in the middle of the night to shut down schools.
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