Parts of EDSA have high amounts of cancerous black carbon

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Although it was initially designed to ease travel within Metro Manila, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) is known for perennial congestion, especially during rush hours.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) – Pedestrians and traffic enforcers remain exposed to the lethal amount of cancerous black carbon in some parts of EDSA.

Reynaldo Razalan, 64, has been a traffic enforcer for the last 20 years.

He stands under the Shaw Boulevard flyover, with nothing but a makeshift mask to protect him from the elements.

Razalan said that he had the mask made for him using his own money. Not all traffic enforcers like to use the mask, but in his 20 years of service, he prefers it.

Smoke belching is common in EDSA, especially by public utility vehicles.

"Minsan may mga ganun na tao: Pagtapat sa iyo, didiinan ang gasolina parang nananadya, tapos aalis na lang."

[Translation: "Sometimes cars would even pass by, they press the gas and belch smoke into our faces, before driving away."]

In addition to rude drivers, Razalan tells the story of a colleague whom, after becoming a traffic enforcer, developed asthma.

"Ang malala doon, sa malalim," said Razalan, pointing to the Shaw Boulevard underpass, the same underpass, unaware to Razalan, which has the highest levels of black carbon in the stretch of EDSA.

[Translation: It's worse in the underpass."]

Black carbon is a dangerous pollutant that is commonly found in vehicle emissions. It has been linked to lung cancer.

Related: Cleaner fuel, stricter emission standards up by July

The Shaw Boulevard underpass and the Ayala underpass have alarmingly high rates, based on data collected by Dr. Gerry Bagtasa, an internationally renowned atmospheric physicist, who measured black carbon levels along  EDSA.

Bagtasa heads the Bagtasa Atmospheric Physics Laboratory of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology of the University of the Philippines.

In his studies, he found out that black carbon in other countries range from 1 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter. In Germany, the amount is 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

In contrast, measurements in EDSA, particularly at the Ayala Station of the MRT and the Shaw Boulevard underpass, can reach 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter — well beyond the acceptable standard.

Black carbon results from the incomplete combustion of diesel fuel. Well maintained engines that run on newer fuel can reduce the risk of black carbon.

The Land Transportation Office (LTO) is tasked with emissions testing for black carbon and other harmful pollutants, but recent graft charges against LTO officials questioned the effectiveness and integrity of their testing methods.

After seeing the results, Bagtasa said in his blog that he would not open his car window again.

"The risk of cancer comes with accumulation of years of exposure," said Bagtasa. "Being in EDSA every day is as dangerous as smoking."

It's for this reason that Bagtasa doesn't allow his daughter to play outside during peak hours of traffic in Metro Manila. He fears for his own daughter, who like many other children, is sensitive to air quality.

He fears for traffic enforcers, who must work with cancerous air pollution levels on a daily basis. Commuters and motorists are also at risk.

Warned about the imminent threat of cancer, Ranzalan was not surprised: "Alam ko naman na yun yung magiging problema dito eh."

[Translation: "I knew that was going to be the problem here."]

Ranzalan politely placed his mask back on, and continued to work amidst the smoke.