ExpatLIFE: Surviving Yellow Dust Season in Seoul

There's usually skyscrapers and mountains in this view of Seoul. Really.

There's usually skyscrapers and mountains in this view of Seoul. Really.

Though it doesn't snow much in Seoul, the wind and temperatures well below freezing can make for a brutal winter (especially if you have two huskies who think this is THE BEST time to go for long walks) and the arrival of temperatures even just in the 40s (Fahrenheit) can be cause for excitement. Unfortunately, along with the the rising temperatures and first blooms of cherry blossoms, arrives my nemesis, yellow dust.

Seoul seems to fly relatively under the radar compared to large Chinese cities when it comes to international reporting about pollution, maybe because there's only a two month period where the pollution is consistently bad, but truth be told, even outside of yellow dust season the air quality here is not great. I generally consider an AQI of 75-100 to be good/pretty normal. (Want to know what the AQI is in New York as I write this? 32.) Recently my facebook feed has been awash with posts in various expat groups with newcomers asking if anyone else had been sick for three months straight or if this pollution was normal and seasoned expats saying this year was affecting them especially hard and asking for advice. I'm no expert but I am an asthmatic who had bronchitis three times in my first nine months in Seoul and I don't really have a lot of choice about spending time outside because of our super active dogs so I've spent a fair amount of time figuring out what works best to keep me healthy.

1. What even is yellow dust?

Yellow dust/Asian dust/Hwangsa is fine particle pollution picked up from dust storms in Northern China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan that have happened in Spring for literally thousands of years. Storms have gotten worse in recent years because of deforestation and desertification in the originating countries and because now, along with the fine sand, comes all of China's lovely industrial pollutants. South Korea isn't just an innocent bystander though, it's heavy reliance on coal energy (and plans to expand its number of coal power plants) means that as much as the government wants to pass the buck, a lot of the small particulate pollution actually originates here.

Last year we had a relatively mild season overall but also two of the worst days in years. PM 2.5 levels reached over 1,000 in my neighborhood. This is what it's like today.

Last year we had a relatively mild season overall but also two of the worst days in years. PM 2.5 levels reached over 1,000 in my neighborhood. This is what it's like today.

2.  How do I monitor the pollution levels?

You have a couple of options, aqicn.org is my favorite because you can use it world wide (even in China!) and in Seoul it has updates per neighborhood and an easy to look at map. Sometimes the air quality is good in my neighborhood but wherever I'm going to run errands or meet people, the air is terrible. Sometimes the opposite is true and it's a good opportunity to get out of my hood. I also have this global air quality app, but sometimes it just completely stops working and decided I'm in China. It's been working pretty well lately and you can have it send you push notifications when the air is unhealthy. There's also a yellowdust bot on twitter that reports on overall AQI in Seoul, but since it isn't by neighborhood, right now it's tweeting a significantly lower level than what's happening just outside my window.

3. Great, but, when is it actually bad for me to be outside?

This depends on what country's government agency you ask and your personal health. In Japan, people are advised to stay inside if the PM2.5 reaches over 70. In the US over 100 is unhealthy for at risk groups (children, elderly, asthmatics, etc), over 150 is considered unhealthy for everyone, over 200 very unhealthy and 300-500 is considered hazardous. There isn't even a ranking for over 500. In Korea, the government issues an advisory for at risk groups if the AQI is over 400 and for everyone if it's over 800! I know people who aren't bothered by the air at all until the pollution is actually visible at street level and I know people (like me) who are bothered before it even reaches 150. For me, I start to feel my lungs working harder and my sinuses getting irritated when the AQI hits around 130, that doesn't mean I stop going outside, it just means I take precautions.

Me before leaving for eMart yesterday. Shredder mask 4EVA.

Me before leaving for eMart yesterday. Shredder mask 4EVA.

4. I've definitely been feeling the air quality but I need to go outside to walk my dogs/run errands/travel between classrooms/exist as a human being, what do I do?

A few different things:

  • Mask up I went through a number of different masks before I found one that was both comfortable and actually works. Sadly, cute cloth ones do nothing even though they're available everywhere. The more standard surgical masks you see people wearing also don't create enough of a seal or have a good enough filter for fine particle pollution. You want a mask with a rating of N95 or KF94 (they essentially mean the same thing, one is just the US ranking system and one is the Korean) that you also are ok with wearing. After trying many different masks that didn't do enough, I finally bought a box of the 3M N95 masks at eMart that look like your serious construction worker masks, the only problem? I have a small face and head so the mask was basically in my eyes making it unwearable. This year I found an upgraded version of my favorite Kleenex brand mask that used to only come as KF80. The KF94 version has a metal pin to bend over your nose (with foam to create a better seal and to keep it comfortable), is a bit thicker and is comfortable enough that I only hate wearing it a little bit. I got some at eMart but yellow dust/hwangsa masks usually start showing up at every Olive Young, convenience store and pharmacy this time of year.
  • Shower when you get home A lot of people experience skin irritation during dust season, so it's recommended to keep as covered as possible BUT the weather is finally nice and you're probably wanting to feel some of that sun on your skin. Even if you do keep your arms and legs covered, your clothing might not keep all of the irritating fine sand out, showering when you get home helps get it off you immediately. I also find that a hot steamy shower helps with sinus irritation.
  • Neti pot as much as you can stand There is no doubt that pouring salt water through your nose is disgusting and uncomfortable BUT (tmi moment) when the air quality gets REALLY BAD, sometimes my snot is actually black. As uncomfortable as it can be in the moment, regularly using my neti pot really does help. (But I'm still terrible at remembering to do this one)
  • Keep your windows closed and buy an air purifier If you're like me, the moment it gets warm, you want to open up everything and get some air circulation. Don't, or at least make sure you do it during the part of the day where the AQI is supposed to be lowest. Try to keep your home environment as irritant free as possible so your lungs are getting a break when you're inside. We have this humidifier/ air purifier combo (it was only around $100 at Costco last year despite the much higher price on Amazon) that we keep in our bedroom that definitely helps me wake up with easier lungs and less irritated sinuses. The upside is that it monitors the humidity level on it's own and adjusts accordingly and it has a nighttime mode where the lights dim and it's quieter. The downside is that it needs the water replaced pretty much daily and needs to be cleaned somewhat regularly or it gets mold. I'm not sure I wouldn't prefer a regular air purifier instead.
  • Go to the doctor/get an inhaler If you've had asthma at any point in your life, even if it's been under control, I definitely recommend going to a doctor and making sure you've got current prescriptions for at least albuterol. If you've never had asthma before but are getting out of breath easily or wheezing, I also definitely recommend going to the doctor and getting an inhaler or other treatment now when it's not that bad before it turns into full blown bronchitis. Even after I've officially recovered from bronchitis, I find my lungs usually feel weaker for about another month, which, obviously, makes me more prone to bronchitis, hence my getting it over and over when I first got here. Health care in Korea is incredibly affordable compared to the US even if you don't have insurance, so get yourself to an international clinic! (I go to the one at SCH in Hannam)
  • Take a break from Seoul If it's possible to take a vacation, do it! Even just hopping on a cheap Peach flight and taking a long weekend in Kyoto, it can help give your lungs a break. Just check to make sure you're going somewhere the air is cleaner since you're likely to find dust in a lot of Asia this time of year. (Last year we found ourselves in Bangkok at the tail end of one of my bouts of bronchitis, obviously that didn't help at all, but a few days on the beach in Southern Thailand and I was feeling immensely better.)

5. My dogs can't wear a mask or use a neti pot, how do I keep them healthy?

This one is SO HARD. Obviously if you have smaller, lower energy dogs, you can switch to using pee pads and keeping them indoors like you might do already when it's really cold. With larger high energy dogs like jindo mixes and huskies, this just isn't possible. I look at the forecast and try to take them for walks when the air is supposed to be the best for the day. Lately any day it's under 130, I try to take them for a long hike to keep them worn out for a couple of days. If it's over 150, my husband takes them on a walk at night instead of their usual run. When I get home I use baby wipes to wipe down their paws and around their snouts to try to help keep irritants out of their eyes and nose. If it gets over 200, we try to stick to outside time only for potty breaks and do A LOT of indoor stimulation with kongs, antlers, puzzle toys and training time (before we got a second dog, this kibble ball was a lifesaver but it starts fights with two dogs). Unfortunately, there's no way to explain to a dog why they're stuck indoors or not allowed to run while they're outside but you don't want them to get bronchitis either because that's going to be even more miserable for everyone.

That's everything I've got. Do you have tips or tricks for staying healthy during dust season? Please share! Even trying to do all these things regularly, I still don't always feel that great and I'd love to learn more.