Yellow Dust Blues

Cloud of Yellow Dust moving out of China and toward the Korean peninsula. Image via

 I realized today that, almost 3 years into our little adventure here in Seoul, one topic I'd failed to mention (except in passing) was Yellow Dust.

This is probably because, in the nearly 3 years I've lived here, Yellow Dust has not been a particular problem for me or the rest of the Asia Vu family.  We're all aware of it, but it really hasn't had much effect on our daily lives.

For those of you fortunate enough not to know what I'm talking about, allow me to explain in the simplest terms possible (the only terms I actually understand):  There is a lot of dust and sand in China's desert regions.  There is also a lot of air pollution in China from things like factories and industry and car exhaust, which include a bunch of  nasty ingredients, like aluminium and iron and silicon, which, when they get into your lungs, aren't so easily cleaned out by your body's normal processes, and which, down the road, can also lead to some pretty vile consequences. Since China is right next door (ok, technically, they're attached), if the winds are in the right quarter(usually in the spring), this toxic air frappe gets blown across China and right over to us in the Land of the Morning Calm.

The Korean government takes this seriously, and air quality levels are closely monitored, with warning texts (yes, texts.  Everyone - and I mean, everyone - has a smartphone) sent out when levels increase to potentially dangerous levels.  A number of websites also provide maps and charts indicating air quality levels.

Yellow Dust level chart via

For the very young, very old, the immunocompromised, and anyone with respiratory or skin issues, even moderate levels of Yellow Dust can be very serious.  It happens most often in the spring, but this year's mild winter seems to have got things moving early, and we've already had a number of high-moderate dust days in 2014.

In theory, there are 5 levels of air quality measurement, but as long as I have lived here, the air has always remained in the 'good' or 'moderate' category, which means the toxins floating around in the air are fewer than so many micrograms per cubic millimeter, with sub-100 being 'good' and sub-200 being 'moderate.'

 When I first found out about Yellow Dust, I looked at the charts like the one above and assumed that, as long as we weren't in the orange, red, or black zone (above 200mcg,) we were doing pretty well. What I didn't realize was, that, according to the guidelines, even the moderate (level 2 ) category was considered bad.   The very young, the very old, and those with respiratory issues (asthma, for example) are supposed to use caution and avoid going outside.  In fact, the city of Seoul recommends (requires?) that schools keep all children inside when the dust levels are only in the 'moderate' (level 2) category, which means that playtime and any athletic practices must either be indoors or canceled altogether even when the air quality levels are in the 'moderate' zone.  At this writing, we have had at least 5 or 6 days in 2014 alone where children were kept indoors all over Seoul during playtime, due to dust levels in the mid-moderate zone.

I should also mention that the number of face masks you see on the streets increase during a Yellow Dust event.  These are the surgical masks that you see on people all over Asia (not just in Korea.)  People wear them when they are sick, to avoid infecting others, but there are also masks available with special filters in them made specifically for Yellow Dust.  They even come in special kid-friendly versions:

And yes, you see them on little kids all over the place.  I used to think that the children wearing them were either ill themselves or that their parents were trying to prevent them catching something, but I finally made the connection between dust and and increased number of kids in masks.  They're sort of the canary in the coal mine:  if you notice a lot of little ones wearing masks, you (meaning me) should probably check the dust levels.

To be honest, I haven't ever paid much attention to the whole dust thing until now.  I can't tell you how many times in the past few years I've spent a day enjoying myself outdoors only to learn when I got home that the air had been very bad that day - totally unbeknownst to me, and with no observable ill effects.  Part of the problem is that I don't actually bother to check the air quality (it involves remembering to go to a web site and actually look, like I have time for that) very often.  There is, in fact, a service which you can sign up for that will send you alerts via text if the dust levels are elevated, but the texts are in Korean.  I suppose I could learn the Korean words for 'air quality alert' but I get so many Korean spam texts that I would probably delete it before I realized it was an alert.

Anyway...getting back to the point:  the dust has been around for the almost-3 years I've lived here, and it has never bothered me.  I always just assumed that the air quality would have to be considerably poorer in order for it to really become an issue.

Clever readers will, of course, realize that I am writing this because things have changed.

On Monday, I met a group of friends and we spent the better part of 5 hours enjoying an unusually warm February day wandering around outside in the open-air markets of Namdemun.  I had had a bit of a scratchy throat and a runny nose when I started out, but chalked it up to a little seasonal allergy or perhaps a mild cold.  About 3 hours into the morning, my eyes were burning and itching, my throat felt like sandpaper, and my entire head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton.  My voice had gone from its normal contralto to a mid-range baritone, and I could no longer taste or smell.  By the time I got myself home (via subway and walking - out in all that fresh air, you know), I was convinced I was coming down with the flu that had been making the rounds of our school for the last few weeks, and I medicated and put myself to bed accordingly.

Much to my relief, I was feeling  better in the morning - still scratchy and stuffy, of course, but with none of the aches, pains, or fevers that have been accompanying the nasty flu bug.  Armed with several packages of Kleenex, I headed off through the foggy Seoul morning and walked up the hill to work, observing that, the closer I got to school, the worse I felt.  15 minutes later, I arrived at school, eyes streaming and itching, nose running, throat burning, and wondering what in the world was wrong with me.  That was when everyone informed me that the air quality was going to be even worse today than it had been yesterday.

"Oh, it was bad yesterday?" I asked.

Yes, I was informed, the air quality had been very bad, so much so that the children hadn't even been able to go out to play (Mondays are my day off, which is why I hadn't known.)  And it was even worse today, which probably explained why I felt so dreadful.

Now, this level of dust is nothing new.  It's happened in the past, without bothering me a bit, and I have no idea why dust in the 'moderate' levels is causing me so many problems this year (and no, I don't think I am quite ready to chalk this one up to my advancing age.)  Maybe a couple of years of exposure to the stuff has pushed my immune system over the edge.  Or maybe I had a cold coming on anyway.  In any case, I'm fighting back with all the weapons in my arsenal, from home remedies to frequent showers (recommended as soon as you return from outdoors) to keeping all the windows closed.

And, yes, it's come to this as well:


Nance said…
I was watching the news last night and saw that China was at Level Orange. It's terrible. When the Olympics were in Beijing, I recall that concerted efforts were made to impact the air quality and make it better. Now that the Games are well over and the international spotlight is gone, it seems so is the concern.

Long ago in the sixties, the US Steel mill 9 blocks from our house used to put out a bright orange dust from the manufacturing of pipe. In the right conditions, it would settle on our houses, cars, lawns--everywhere, I guess, until a brisk wind or rain got rid of it. I guess it was benign. No one ever said otherwise, and my dad put in 30 years there with no health problems that pointed toward it as a cause.
MsCaroline said…
Nance - I remember the air issue in Beijing, too. Never dreamed it would actually impact me, though. I think they are still making efforts, but as you can imagine, it's a slow process. One of the blogs I read (My wandering life) is written by a US expat living with her family in Shanghai and she has frequently mentioned the air quality. In fact, for a while (and maybe still) she was posting photos of the sky over Shanghai at high noon each day as a weekly collage. It is pretty alarming to see some of the 'yellow' days.
Ugh, how horrible for you and I hope it calms down soon.

Those face masks do seem to have become very popular all over Asia, and no wonder. When I was in HK as a child the air pollution was bad, and a lot of kids would get really bad asthma as a result, but the face masks weren't a thing. Maybe they should have been. Although I can't believe they are really all that effective?
MsCaroline said…
NVG - There are many kinds of face masks available here - some just for sickness, some to keep germs off others, some to keep others' germs off you - my favorite is when women have plastic surgery on their nose/mouth/jaw and wear the masks, which is also a common sight (here, everyone has plastic surgery and discusses it openly, so walking around post-surgery with a mask on is not a big deal, whereas in the US I think you'd probably just head off for a long holiday and come back looking extremely refreshed!) The yellow dust masks are marked as such and have an actual filter them that is supposed to help filter out some of the yuck (although if the particles are really that small, one wonders if they can't get through filters as easily as anything else...) Today was a little lower, but we are still over 100 mcg, which means no playtime for the kiddos. They're all crazy from being cooped up all week long. Crossing fingers for tomorrow!
Trish said…
That blog post has been a real education for me.
I have a tendency towards asthma so I'd have to invest in those masks I imagine.
Will keep an eye on Yellow Dust info online from now on. Keep well, my friend.
MsCaroline said…
Thanks, Trish. I knew about the pollution being bad in China, and was vaguely aware that it could get bad here during the spring, but in the past 2 years, we never really had any problems. This is the first year it's really affected me enough to bother to learn about it. Probably good to know if you ever decide to travel to this part of the world!
Trish said…
I mentioned this to my son last night as he was revising environmental hazards for his mock Geography A level. He came home today to say 'smog' had come up in his exam so he included the Korean Government's text warnings as an example of a strategy to deal with problem.
So thank you from both of us for your educational post :-))
MsCaroline said…
Trish - Wow, I think that's the nicest comment I've ever gotten on a blog post! As a teacher, you can only imagine how much I appreciate knowing that I've contributed (in a smaaaallll way) to someone's education. Hope he gets great marks on the exam!

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