Fine dust in Seoul, pictures by Christie Pham

When Air Pollution Turns Heaven to Hell

On many days, smog hides the buildings and covers the cars.
South Korea, Eastern Asia

Story by Nhi (Christie) Pham. Edited by Melaina Dyck
Published on June 14, 2021. Reading time: 4 minutes

This story is also available in it kr tr

During my 5 years in South Korea, I have experienced the beauty of the country in every season. Romantic cherry blossoms, sunny beaches, gorgeous maple trees, and snowy mountains make Korea heaven in many people’s hearts. Seoul is beautiful on a clear day, when you can see the blue sky and the green mountains from the urban streets. But, on many days, you can barely see the buildings because of smog. Those are the days when the AQI (Air Quality Index) describes the air as “hazardous” and furniture and cars are covered in dust after a wind blows by.


Fine dust exists in the air all year round, but when the air is dry, the concentrations of ultra-fine and fine dust surge to dangerous levels for days or even weeks. Fine dust is a serious health threat as it contains nitrates, black carbon and mineral dust. It is small in size and not visible. It can easily bypass people's noses and throats, penetrate the bloodstream and cause damage to organs. I personally experienced the negative effects of air pollution in South Korea when I started to get symptoms of serious dust allergies after moving to the country. My eyes got so itchy and red on polluted days that I had to visit the doctor for medicines. I was surprised when the doctor acted as though my symptoms were common in that season.

Respiratory symptoms gave me stress and anxiety. 

My symptoms got worse. I started to have trouble breathing and developed chest pains. Since Korea was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic at that time, the respiratory symptoms gave me a lot of stress and anxiety. I got diagnosed with rhinitis and acid reflux due to a fine dust allergy and stress. At that time, I really wanted to leave Korea because of my health concerns.

During the dust season, it is common to see emergency messages with air pollution alerts that advise people to refrain from doing outdoor activities and to take public transportation instead of personal cars. There is also a surge in the sale and promotion of fine-dust-related products such as KF95 masks and air purifiers. Fine dust has become a part of people’s everyday life. Living here means that you have to be prepared for and get used to dust. Whenever the air pollution is on alert level, expats share their frustrations, and even say they intend to leave the country, because their heaven becomes hell.

Many South Koreans blame China for creating the smog-like conditions. I spot phrases such as, “Chinese yellow sand is coming” (중국 황사 몰려온다) and “fine dust because of China” (중국탓 황사) in Korean news reports. However, through research conducted by NASA and Korea’s National Institute of Environmental Research, I learned that Korean factories, construction, ships and power points contribute more fine dust than overseas sources. In order to cope with the problem, Korea is making an effort to raise awareness among residents about environmental problems and encouraging people to take actions through their daily routines. The government has waived subway and bus fees when the level of fine dust is high, shut down parking lots, and built more bike paths and pedestrian-only zones to increase environmentally-friendly transportation. Recently, I also spotted more electric buses. Seeing their effort and progress in reducing fine dust problems and air pollution, I reconsidered my decision to leave the country. I hope that in the next decade, Korea will boast blue skies and clean air every day.



Korea Air Pollution Control Industry overview, best prospects, trade shows and contacts, 2020, International Trade Administration,

Seoul's Answer to a Pollution Crisis: Free Public Transit, 2018, Bloomberg CityLab,

Chinese Yellow Dust Or Korean Factory Fumes? NASA Teams Cruise For Clues, 2016, Forbes,

미세먼지: 당신이 알아야 할 6가지 사실, 2018, BBC News KR,

미세먼지-배출-정보와-발생-원인을-알고-싶다면, 2021, The Science Times news,

계절별 평균, 2020, Seoul Atmospheric Environment Information,

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Nhi (Christie) Pham

Nhi (Christie) Pham

Nhi Pham (Christie Pham) is a Vietnamese UX designer based in Seoul, South Korea. During her 5 years of living in South Korea as a student, a correspondent and then an office worker, she has observed and experienced several aspects of the country, especially Seoul City. With interests in global, environmental and multicultural issues, she wants to share her stories with readers from her perspective. Her ultimate goal is to connect and inspire people around the world.

Topic: Environment

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