Air quality in South Korea

Air quality index (AQI) and PM2.5 air pollution in South Korea

LAST UPDATE (local time)

LIVE AQI CITY RANKING

Real-time South Korea
Most polluted city ranking

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#cityUS AQI
1 Puan, Jeollabuk-do

74

2 Sangju, Gyeongsangbuk-do

59

3 Gochang, Jeollabuk-do

57

4 Icheon, Gyeonggi-do

57

5 Goesan, Chungcheongbuk-do

53

6 Yeonggwang, Jeollanam-do

53

7 Anseong, Gyeonggi-do

50

8 Hyeonpung, Daegu

50

9 Koesan, Chungcheongbuk-do

50

10 Donghae, Gangwon-do

45

(local time)

SEE WORLD AQI RANKING

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LIVE AQI CITY RANKING

Real-time South Korea
Cleanest city ranking

Tooltip icon
#cityUS AQI
1 Geoje, Gyeongsangnam-do

3

2 Gapyeong, Gyeonggi-do

5

3 Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do

5

4 Yonmu, Chungcheongnam-do

6

5 Beolgyo, Jeollanam-do

7

6 Dongducheon, Gyeonggi-do

8

7 Hanam, Gyeonggi-do

8

8 Hwayang, Jeollanam-do

8

9 Namwon, Jeollabuk-do

8

10 Toseong, Gangwon-do

8

(local time)

SEE WORLD AQI RANKING
Good
Moderate
Unhealthy for sensitive groups
Unhealthy
Very unhealthy
Hazardous
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OVERVIEW

How polluted is South Korea?

The national flag of Rest of the world

2020 Air quality average

Human face indicating AQI level

Moderate

2020 average US AQI

66

!

PM2.5

x1

PM2.5 concentration in South Korea air is currently 1 times above WHO exposure recommendation

2020  South Korea cleanest city Yeongdeok , Gyeongsangbuk-do

49

2020  South Korea most polluted city Jangseong , Jeollanam-do

78

2020 aqi country ranking

How does South Korea rank globally in air pollution?

41/ 106 countries ranked in 2020

Which country had the worst air quality in 2020?

#COUNTRYPopulationAVG. US AQI
1The national flag of Rest of the worldBangladesh164'689'383

162

2The national flag of Rest of the worldPakistan220'892'331

153

3The national flag of Rest of the worldIndia1'380'004'385

141

4The national flag of Rest of the worldMongolia3'278'292

128

5The national flag of Rest of the worldAfghanistan38'928'341

128

6The national flag of Rest of the worldOman5'106'622

123

7The national flag of Rest of the worldQatar2'881'060

123

8The national flag of Rest of the worldKyrgyzstan6'524'191

121

9The national flag of Rest of the worldIndonesia273'523'621

114

10The national flag of Rest of the worldBosnia Herzegovina3'280'815

113

41The national flag of Rest of the worldSouth Korea51'269'183

66

SEE DETAIL

How to best protect from air pollution?

Reduce your air pollution exposure in South Korea

What is the air quality forecast for South Korea?

Officially known as the Republic of Korea, South Korea is a Southeast Asian countrylocated on the southern part of the Korean peninsula. The northern part beingoccupied by North Korea with which it shares a land border. In 2019, thecountry had a population of around 50 million people, out of which, half live in the capital city of Seoul.

At the end of 2020, Seoul was experiencing “Good” air quality with a US AQI figureof 41. This is based on recommendations from the World Health Organisation(WHO). The main pollutants suspended in the air constituted of: - PM2.5 - 10µg/m³, PM10 - 26.5 µg/m³, ozone (O3) - 22 µg/m³, nitrogen dioxide(NO2) - 52.6 µg/m³, sulphur dioxide (SO2) - 7.9 µg/m³ andcarbon monoxide (CO) - 572.5 µg/m³. With figures like these windows and doorscan be safely opened and outdoor activities enjoyed.

In 2019, the annual average air quality in South Korea was classified as being"Moderate" with a reading of 78 US AQI. The PM2.5 level was twice therecommended level. In world rankings, South Korea was listed as being the 26thdirtiest country out of 98 which were judged.

How bad is air pollution in South Korea?

During the winter and spring of 2019, the Korean Peninsula was engulfed in the worsttype of fine dust. From January to March, 12 emergency measures to reduce finedust were imposed but only in the metropolitan area. In March, for the firsttime ever, they were issued for 7 consecutive days. At this time, the dailyaverage concentration of ultrafine dust (PM2.5) in Seoul was 129 μg per m³(micrograms per cubic metre). In 2020, due to the fine dust seasonal managementsystem the average concentration per cubic metre in Korea for four months hasdecreased by 27 per cent from 33 μg last year to 24 μg this year. Experts who lookfor reasons why this should be attributed it to the reduction in movement dueto the COVID 19 pandemic, social activities ceased, factories were shut down and traffic dramatically decreased.

In 2019, the average concentration of ultrafine dust (PM2.5) in South Korea was the worst among the member countriesof the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It wassecond place in 2018, but it climbed one step to the top. According to the'2019 World Air Quality Report' released this month by AirVisual, a global air pollutioninvestigation agency, South Korea's annual average ultrafine dust concentrationlast year was 24.8 µg/m³ which was the worst among OECD member countries. Chile (24.9 µg/m³), whichhad the highest concentration of ultrafine dust among OECD countries in 2018,recorded 22.6 µg/m³ last year, improving the concentration of fine dust compared to Seoul

What are the main causes of air pollution in South Korea?

There are two main sources of air pollution in South Korea, namely emissions fromburning fossil fuels and vehicle emissions. In 1960, South Korea was adeveloping country switching from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Duringthe 1980s and 90s, South Korea’s economy grew at a rate of 10 per cent perannum. In 2015 South Korea was ranked as the world’s 11th largestgross domestic producer but this position was attained through dirty coal-firedpower stations and dirty vehicle emissions.

A large percentage of the pollutants are blown in by the prevailing winds from China. It is thought that between 30 and 50 percent of PM2.5 pollutant in South Korea, originated from China. These arefigures recorded on “good” days on “bad” days it can reach as high as 60 to 80per cent. During the colder winter months, the air currents are noticeablyslower and therefore do not disperse the pollutants that still drift acrossfrom China. South Korea too must shoulder some of the blame with its heavyreliance on coal-fired power stations and diesel fumes from vehicles and generators.

Due to China’s rapidly developing economy, it burns an estimated 4 billion tons ofcoal to feed its power-hungry population. This contributes to at least 50 percent of the PM2.5 particulates suspended in South Korea’s air. The situation isexacerbated by the dust blown in from China’s western deserts and InnerMongolia. The mega-city of Shanghai was also to blame as a source of pollution.This situation is expected to worsen as China continues to satisfy its need forenergy unless steps are taken to prevent it.

What can be done to improve air quality in South Korea?

When data from domestic and overseas satellite observations such as the NationalAeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA)are combined and analysed, the levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) hasdecreased significantly since the 1990s. This is partially due to theregulation on the use of solid fuels such as anthracite. The high proportion oflow sulphur oil and the introduction of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is also substantial.The same can be said of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂), which is often produced fromthe exhaust gases from vehicles. The concentration of nitrogen dioxide hadslowly increased but has been gradually decreasing since 2007. The number ofcars continued to increase, but the reduction in nitrogen dioxide means thatemission regulations have become stronger.

When it comes to levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2),both China and Japan are getting lower. Looking at the concentration trend from2011 to 2018, both sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in China aresignificantly decreasing. However, it should be taken into account that this isa relative value. This means that China's emissions decreased significantly in2018 compared to 2011, but it will still be higher than that of South Korea andJapan. What is impressive is Japan, where there is already a lower level of airpollutant emissions than South Korea and China. Nevertheless, pollutantemissions decreased in 2018 compared to 2011. With a concerted effort, these levels could drop further.

Which city in South Korea had the highest levels of air pollution?

Many different types of pollution have increased proportionately as South Korea’seconomy has increased over the last decades. Satellite data from the NationalAeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite has shown that Seoul isamongst one of the world’s cities with the worst air pollution. Between 2009and 2013 the average PM10 figures were considerably higher than of capitalcities such as London, Paris, Tokyo and Los Angeles. Because of this poor airquality, it is estimated that 16 per cent of all deaths recorded in Seoul are due to air pollution.

At the end of 2020, the South Korean city of Jeungpyeong took the title of thedirtiest city with a US AQI reading of 97. This classed it as “Moderate” butthe 2 previous days had classed it as being "Unhealthy".

With levels of this scale, it is advisable to close doors and windows to stop theingress of dirty air and the group of people who are sensitive to poor airquality should consider staying indoors if possible or to use a good quality mask if venturing outside is inevitable.

In comparison to other cities, the average annual concentration of ultrafine dustin Jeungpyeong-gun, Chungbuk, was 33.9 µg/m³, which was the worst in SouthKorea. The average concentration of Jeungpyeong-gun was ranked 7thamong the top 100 cities in OECD countries. In addition, 61 out of the top 100cities with the most severe dust pollution among all OECD member countries areKorean cities. In 2018, 44 of the top 100 cities increased by 1.6 times comparedto that of Korean cities. In the report, it was stated that no city in Koreahas been able to meet the annual average PM2.5 concentration of 10 µg/m³ as recommended by theWorld Health Organisation (WHO). Most of the air pollution-related policies ofthe South Korean government focus only on temporary policies and diesel emissions reduction.

What does the future hold with regards to air quality in South Korea?

The air pollution problem is a global concern, in the past, air pollution has been lookedon as a local problem. The size of the pollutant source was small and thepopulation density was low. But now both of these factors have increased and ithas become not only a national problem but a global one too. Satelliteobservation is of great help in monitoring air pollutants crossing borders. Itwas also an opportunity to confirm that social change can reduce air pollutants.

In February 2020, Korea successfully launched the Cheonrian 2B satellite. Thesatellite eventually settled in geostationary orbit 36,000 km above the KoreanPeninsula. The satellite is equipped with an environmental satellite whichincorporates a sensor that tracks pollutants in the air. From the beginning of next year, airpollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2)and ozone (O3) from 26 countries in East Asia including Korea will be observed and tracked eight times a day.

Ground monitoring systems can accurately determine the properties and concentrationsof pollutants in certain areas. In order to track pollutants entering thecountry from outside, observation networks must be located above the sea. It isnot easy to reliably measure air quality on the sea. Having North Korea as aneighbour has its ramifications because the impact of pollutants exchanged withNorth Korea is quite significant, but there is no data on measuring air pollutantsin North Korea. The use of satellites fills that void. The earth can be seenfrom above without borders and the occurrence, movement, and distribution of pollutants can be easily observed.

Since 2016, the Korean Ministry of Environment has regulated 11 different airpollutants and categorised a further 32 as being hazardous to health. It istheir intention to close down 10 of their 61 coal-fired power stations by 2025.

Does the exclusion of traffic from city centres help to reduce air pollution?

Fossil fuel combustion is the largest contributor to air pollution than anything elsein South Korea. The country itself has very little natural resources andtherefore imports all but 1 per cent of all its needs. The country heavilyrelies on this source of energy for its increasing demand in expandingindustries. 38 per cent of Korea’s energy requirements come from oil, with afurther 29 per cent from coal and a relatively low reliance on gas at just 15 per cent.

The number of cars and other vehicles on Korea’s roads is increasing rapidly. Dueto the expanding economy, more delivery vehicles are used in the cities andthese are usually powered by diesel which is a particularly dirty fuel when used in heavy-duty vehicles.

An efficient public transport system is needed to encourage people to leave theircars at home and commute on public transport. Modern buses can be powered byclean sustainable energy and electricity. Many trains run on electricity too.Delivery vehicles when used within the city limits could be restricted to electric power only.

What are the effects on health by breathing South Korea’s poor quality air?

Strong, healthy people with no known pre-existing medical conditions can be affected byair pollution. The effects may be mild symptoms of coughing and wheezing orirritated eyes. Skin irritations can happen too depending on the specific pollutants suspended in the air.

These symptoms become severe for certain groups of people such as pregnant women,children under the age of 14 years and senior citizens. They may soon succumbto aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, shortage of breath dueto stress placed on the heart and lungs as they work harder to maintain therequired level of oxygen needed by the body. Cells in the respiratory organscan become irrevocably damaged in a relatively short span of time.

People in these groups may suffer from health problem at lower air pollution exposure levels, or their health may be affected more intensely.

Prolonged exposure may lead to the faster ageing of the lung tissue which leads to a loss in capacity and thus functionality.Diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer are more prevalent in heavily polluted cities.

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