What’s The Deal with Fine Dust?

Something that might be of surprise to exchange students when they arrive in Korea, especially is you’re arriving from Western countries, is the wearing of air masks in public. From my personal experience in Canada, I do, though rarely, see some people wearing these masks in public, for as a preventative measure to keep themselves from getting those around them sick. While this is also true in Korea, there is also a less-thoughtful, and more serious reason for wearing masks: fine dust.


A Bit of Background

Fine dust, also referred to as Asian dust or yellow dust, originates in the western deserts of China and Mongolia. The sand and finer particles in the deserts are whipped up by strong winds and these sandstorms travel across mainland China. Because of the highly developed industrial and manufacturing sectors in China, this sand and dust combines with pollutant particulates, including sulfur, carbon monoxide and many potentially cancer-causing carcinogens. Given the natural weather patterns in this part of Asia, the winds, eventually sweep over to the eastern coasts of the country, over to Korea and eventually Japan.

Smog in front of Gwangwhamun (광화문) in central Seoul (Source: http://mengnews.joins.com/view.aspx?aId=2999528)

While the frequency of high-concentration fine dust days has increased in recent years, these days are most common in the spring months in South Korea (March, April, May). The issue has opened up many conversations about South Korean public health, environmental protection and the country’s relationship with China.

Fine dust effects vary from person to person. My friends who have asthma or allergies that give them respiratory problems experience it much more than I do. An hour or two outside on a high-concentration day can make them feel very congested, with thick-feeling, sore throats, runny noses, and most significant, feeling fatigued and tired.

Wearing masks in Gwanghwamun Plaza (Source: http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150429000507)

Living with Fine Dust in Korea

The effects I mostly feel after a day in with high concentrations of fine dust, I usually feel slightly fatigued. However, especially having now lived in Seoul for over three months, I can definitely start to feel its effects a little bit more prominently. Just a few weeks ago, I caught a slight cold, and because of fine dust, it took much longer for me to feel like I fully recovered from the coughing and congestion.

Despite the slightly alarming introduction I might have used, living with and managing the issue of fine dust in South Korea is relatively easy. From my own experiences, (especially as a student, who spends a sizeable amount of time in classes), it’s more of a few lifestyle changes. Here are some tips to make sure you and your lungs stay healthy!


  1. Check the air quality before leaving home.

There are a few easy ways you can keep track of the air quality before you head out for the day. There are two main apps that many people use. I personally use Air Visual, which updates hourly on the quality of the air: AirVisual and Misae Misae (미세미세).



This is the more common air quality app that I’ve seen foreigners use. There a number of air quality sensors that contribute to the data in the app. It also helps you plan for the day as it forecasts for roughly the next 12 hours to few days. The app updates every hour and with the world map feature, you can see the air quality in areas around the world to help you plan any trips!

Screenshots from the AirVisual app.



Pronounced “Misae Misae”, a few of my Korean friends have told me that while AirVisual is a decent app, 미세미세 is much more accurate and detailed to Korea because it’s locally based. While there are many sensors that help collect data for AirVisual, there are far more for this app, giving it a higher degree of accuracy. The only catch about this app? It’s all in Korean, so if you aren’t comfortable reading Hangul, you’ll be better off using AirVisual.

Screenshots from the 미세미세 app (Source: https://www.kbrockstar.com/archives/129651)


  1. Buy some quality masks.

Masks are widely available everywhere in Korea. From convenience stores, to markets, to street stalls, you’ll be able to find some decent quality masks without any trouble. However, the main masks with the most effective filtration of fine dust are ones that are designated with N95. This means these masks are able to filter out at least 95% of the small particles in the air. A number of brands sell these masks, particularly 3M which you can find very easily in South Korea. These masks generally fit for snugly to prevent as many pollutants as possible from being inhaled.


  1. Use common sense.

This might seem obvious, but when you’re in a world-class city with some amazing things to do, the appeal of spending every day outside is pretty tantalizing. Especially when spring weather is warm, but not too humid, it can be easy to forget about air quality. But, make sure you take some breaks from the outdoors and enjoy a cafe as well! Living with fine dust is just a matter of small lifestyle changes that you can adapt to very quickly once you arrive in Korea!










Article by Kevin from Canada

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