Mackerel let off the hook as major fine particle pollutant

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Mackerel let off the hook as major fine particle pollutant

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After accusations that mackerel are a cause of air pollution in Korea, this classic comfort food has been let off the hook.

The scandal began with a press release from the Ministry of Environment on May 23, which said frying mackerel in one’s kitchen with the windows closed releases 25 times more fine particulate matter than one would experience with a PM2.5 level of 90 micrograms per cubic meter.

The report said frying mackerel indoors produced a PM2.5 concentration of 2,290 micrograms, the highest among foods cooked and tested by the ministry, closely followed by pork belly, which produced 1,360 micrograms.

“Please open the windows when you cook,” the report said, “because the level of fine dust particles indoors is much higher than outdoors, even during days of air pollution alerts.”

The test itself was not faulty, nor were the intentions behind it: the World Health Organization attributed 4.3 million deaths worldwide to household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels in 2012.

But it was a report released in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The end of May was when the discussions between the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance were reaching a climax on whether to increase the price of diesel fuels or to abolish the policies that allow diesel-vehicle drivers to pay lower environment-improvement taxes.

While air pollution was undoubtedly the topic of interest for policymakers and citizens alike for weeks, what they did not expect the Environment Ministry to do was to pull on the mackerel thread.

“So that’s it? Stop eating mackerel and pork bellies, and tax diesel fuels?” asked Sohn Suk-hee on JTBC on June 2.

A Twitter account user with the handle @jshmusicworks posted a photo of fried mackerel on Sunday and wrote, “I had some pretty good fine dust particle dinner.”

To make matters worse, the price of mackerel dropped from an auction bid price of 8,889 won per kilogram ($3.49 per pound) at the Busan Cooperative Fish Market on May 26 to nearly half that price by Monday.

Last Friday, Daehyung Fisheries Cooperative, the Busan Cooperative Fish Market and mackerel fisheries visited the Environment Ministry’s Sejong headquarters to protest the ministry’s report, which they said was “hurting the mackerel industry.”

The ministry’s latest attempt to resolve the mackerel scandal came on Monday.

“It was not the ministry’s intention to single out mackerel as the cause of air pollution,” it said in its new report, explaining that the study had only referenced indoor pollution levels and not pollution in general. It added, “The drop in the price of mackerel appears to have been partly caused by media reports and partly by the end of the fishing ban on mackerel.”

Mackerel fishing is banned every year during their breeding season, and this year’s ban lasted from April 20 to May 25. After being found not guilty of embezzlement, Korean Singer Kim Chang-ryul of the group DJ DOC wrote on his Instagram account on Tuesday, “You and me, mackerel, let’s celebrate for not being found guilty.”

His post gained more than 500 likes in 16 hours.


BY ESTHER CHUNG, SUNG SI-YOON [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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