Every breath you take (is dangerous)

November 25, 2012

In the last year and a half, art has taken to the streets in the fight against air pollution. The battleground is one street in particular: EDSA, the main artery of Metro Manila. 

On the wall of San Lorenzo Village in Makati, strange sea creatures glide across the concrete like forms in a gigantic tattoo.

On the pylons and parapets of the MRT at the corner of Ortigas Avenue and EDSA in Pasig, 4,400 squares map out the 4,400 minutes of the People Power Revolution of 1986.

In the Aurora Cubao Underpass in Quezon City, an underground pipe-scape shudders to life beneath the rumble of cars and buses on the surface. 

And under the southbound flyover on Tramo and EDSA in Pasay, color bars graphing pollution levels in different cities wrap around the massive columns, laying out the work that needs to be done.  

These sprawling artworks by Jose Tence Ruiz, Baby and Coco Anne, Tapio Snellman and Erika Tan, respectively, don’t just provide something different for motorists and commuters to look at when they’re marooned in traffic. They are literally purifying the air. 

The murals covering 1,000 square meters each have been painted with BOYSEN® KNOxOUT™, a revolutionary air-cleaning paint that turns toxic air pollutants into a harmless residue that washes out in the rain. They are, in effect, massive air purifiers. Every square meter of surface painted with KNOxOUT™ neutralizes the toxic gases from the exhaust of 10 cars; each of these murals eliminates the harmful emissions of 10,000 cars.

Of course the project addresses a tiny percentage of the two million cars traveling on the highway each day, but it awakens the citizens to the fact that they can do more than mouth environmental slogans. They can fight air pollution by the simple act of painting their walls.

The air on EDSA could use some major cleaning. The daily level of toxic pollutants on the highway is four and a half times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization; the only time EDSA air is within safety limits in on Good Friday. Air pollution is taking our breath away: It accounts for one out of eight premature deaths in Metro Manila, and the UP College of Medicine has reported that half of all the drugs sold in this country are for respiratory ailments. People who live in polluted areas have shorter life spans than those who live in cleaner areas.

Roadside pollution, which consists largely of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from car exhausts, is especially hazardous to our health. NOx reacts with volatile organic compounds to form smog.

Developed countries have dealt with air pollution by regulating vehicular emissions at their source. For many years, ultrafine titanium dioxide has been used in the catalytic converters of motor vehicles to convert pollutant gases into less harmful substances. Emission control has been effective, but it’s not enough; much of the population of Europe is still exposed to dangerous pollutants.

BOYSEN®, a leading Filipino paint company and one of the top 25 in the Asia-Pacific region, partnered with Cristal Global, the second largest titanium dioxide company in the world, to produce the first air-cleaning paint that is available to the public. KNOxOUT™ transforms any painted surface into a “smog-eating” air purifier. When sunlight or artificial light strikes the surface, the ultrafine titanium dioxide in the paint reacts with NOx and other toxic pollutants and converts them into harmless substances like calcium nitrates. This residue gets washed off in rain. 

KNOxOUT™ air-cleaning paint passed a series of stringent tests conducted by PICADA, an anti-pollution consortium funded by the EU. It is one of the few NOx-reduction technologies available to the consumer. Ordinary homeowners may balk at the price, which is four times that of regular paint, but the benefit to their families’ health far outweighs the cost. As long as the paint is on the wall and exposed to light, it will continue to clean the air.

Two years ago BOYSEN® commissioned Tao, Inc. to conceptualize and curate a unique public art initiative in Metro Manila. Project EDSA (for “Everyone Deserves Safe Air”) would go beyond making pro-environment, anti-pollution statements; it would cover large areas of EDSA in murals painted with KNOxOUT™. With the cooperation and assistance of the Metro Manila Development Authority, this ambitious project soon came into being. 

For the first KNOxOUT™ Project EDSA artwork, the social realist painter Jose Tence Ruiz covered the San Lorenzo Village, Makati wall with marine fractal forms inspired by the work of the naturalist Ernst Haeckel. The graphic design partnership of Baby and Coco Anne (B+C) created the geometrical rendition of the 1986 People Power Revolution on the very intersection where the peaceful uprising took place.

Earlier this year the London-based Finnish architect and filmmaker Tapio Snellman unveiled the Cubao Underpass “pipe-scape.”

The latest Project EDSA mural by the Singaporean artist and filmmaker Erika Tan is a graphic rendition of pollution statistics from cities in the Philippines and elsewhere. The data includes the health impact and costs of air pollution and fuel emissions from different countries. However, the viewer need not read the information to appreciate the artwork. Not only is it a refreshing change from soot-covered pillars in grimy surroundings, it’s also a reminder of how much work needs to be done in combatting air pollution.

Four more Project EDSA art walls will be completed in the coming years. Recently BOYSEN® and its ad agency TBWA/Santiago Mangada Puno won the grand prize in the 2012 TBWA Disruption Awards honoring the best campaigns created in the global agency’s offices in 77 countries. 

KNOxOUT™ improves the quality of the air we breathe, but alone it’s not going to make air pollution go away. What we need is an integrated approach to the problem: better public transportation systems, fewer and cleaner vehicles, more biking and walking. Still, it’s inspiring to know that we’re not hapless victims — we can do something in the fight against air pollution. If we can wage furious battles in paintball ranges, imagine what we can do when our lives are at stake. 
- Jessica Zafra, Courtesy of The Philippine Star