Thinking twice before we breathe 

Published August 25, 2021, 7:21 AM

by Manila Bulletin

The culprits are in the air and we use a mask to fight a two-way invisible battle: a microscopic virus and tiny particles from the vog. The virus here is COVID, which continues to break record number of infections, while the vog is from the volcanic smog of Taal Volcano, swept by the wind northward, making the air of Metro Manila less breathable. Never has there been a time in our modern history when breathing becomes a worrisome “chore.”

Last weekend, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) warned of Taal Volcano’s emission of an average 15,416 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) per day. The rising trend in volcanic SO2 degassing since Aug. 13, 2021 continued to produce the vog.

The air quality index (AQI) recorded in Metro Manila was mostly in the “reds” – hitting as high as 159 last Sunday.  An AQI from 151 to 200, categorized as “unhealthy,” is considered unsafe and anyone vulnerable could experience negative health effects. Those with respiratory problems must strictly stay indoors at all times.

Phivolcs went out of its way to warn those living in communities surrounding Taal Lake to protect themselves from the vog. Aside from advising to stay indoors, homes should shut doors and windows to block out the vog. Those who experience throat irritations must drink plenty of water. And as for facemasks, the ideal one would be an N95.

It is in these two parallel incidents that remind us the importance of breathing. We overlook that in a day, we take in 23,000 breaths – a never-ending cycle of taking in air, extracting oxygen, and expelling carbon dioxide. We take breathing for granted, even totally forget about it – but life revolves around breathing and there’s even a particularly powerful verb to use to denote new beginnings and fresh ideas: Breathe life.

The risks of breathing the virus and the vog are worrisome, even life-threatening for some. But their similarities end there. We couldn’t stop a volcano from spewing more of its ashes, but there is something we can do to prevent the spread of COVID. All of us are aware of the importance of wearing a mask – even double masking if you wish for better protection. But awareness is sometimes not enough as people forget this “civic duty” when they pull down their mask on their chin or dangle its strap on their ears while talking with someone in a public space. We have to realize that we breathe one air so everyone has to do his or her own responsibility.  One slip and everyone could be infected, as evidenced by entire household members getting sick.

Vaccines do indeed build up our immune system but it can’t protect us from inhaling the hazy air coming from southern Luzon. Only a facemask can offer the best shield against the virus and the vog.