Air pollution is becoming a serious problem in Vietnam. To check air pollution levels, environment monitoring officers have to spend most of their time working in polluted areas.
Le Tan Phi and Nguyen Thanh Hoa
Although their health may be affected in the long term due to constantly being exposed to pollutants, the officers working in this field still have to make end meets with a low salary.
A typical working day
Environment monitoring officers often work 12 hours a day. At 6 AM the officers of the Center of Dong Nai Environmental Engineering and Monitoring gathered to get necessary equipment.
Knowing that Tuoi Tre would follow them to the working site, Le Tan Phi, a 26 year old officer, said that it would be a long day and we would not come back before 7:30 PM.
Then Phi and Nguyen Thanh Hoa, his colleague, went to a crossroad in Nhon Trach District , Dong Nai Province to work. They carried many types of equipment, such as a mini electric generator, noise meter, air meter, dust meter, wind meter, chemical bottles, papers to collect samples, batteries, ect.
At 9 AM the sun was already burning. The two officers worked in the baking heat while suffering the deafening honks of passing vehicles. The noise drowned out the conversation. We had to shout while talking to each other. A notebook on the table was filled with dust. Phi joked that the notebook could be used as a tool to collect dust samples.
The monitoring equipment became dusty after being put on the edge of the pavement for a short time. The officers suffered the hot weather and could not avoid breathing in dust too. Phi said that he preferred the hot working conditions over the rain. When it rains, they have to stop operating the dust meter and the air meter. It’s not until one hour after the rain stops that they can continue their work. Every time it rains, they have to work late.
The two officers were constantly busy with the equipment. After setting up the machines for nearly an hour, they had to observe when the machines were working, collect samples, label the bottles and take notes.
They even had to have lunch in a rush. While Hoa stayed at the site to observe the equipment, Phi went out to eat, bought lunch for Phi and hurriedly came back. It gets hotter and hotter at noon. Phi and Hoa continued working hard and kept their eyes on the expensive equipment.
Hoa said that monitoring at the crossroads was the easiest task. Working at garbage dumps or smelly sewers is far more terrible. At the garbage dumps, the working site is only 50 metres from the dumping ground, and the scent gets caught in the wind. “The smell is horrible and we often enjoy our meal with the flies”, Hoa joked.
Phi told us that he was most obsessed with collecting samples of unprocessed sewage from the hospitals. Usually the water is red and muddy, though sometimes it’s black and has a sickly smell. “Working at the crematoria is also a real nightmare”, Phi said of his awful experience.
Ngo Cu Thuan climbs up a chimney to measure the emission rates of pollutants
A challenging but low-paying job
At the age of 26 Ngo Cu Thuan, an environment monitoring officer at the Binh Duong center of Natural Resources and Environment Monitoring, has three years of experience and has gotten used to climbing high chimneys to collect samples. “This job requires me to travel around a lot”, Thuan said with a smile on his sunburnt face.
Under the scorching sun, Thuan and Le Thanh Tung, his colleague, carried their equipment and traveled from factory to factory to measure the noise and air pollution.
After putting on a safety belt, helmet, insulated gloves and shoes, Thuan climbed up a high chimney. One of his hands held a rung of the steel ladder; the other kept the homing device and pushed it into the hole in the chimney to measure the quality of exhaust smoke from the factory.
Thuan had to stand still under extreme heat, suffering the factory’s noise to keep the device in the right position for nearly one hour. Thuan was bathed in sweat. His face was flushed because of the sun. He had to change his standing position several times due to his weary legs.
“Working at this height is nothing to me. I am used to climbing much higher chimneys. To collect data from 100 metre high chimneys, I often climb about 55 meters and wait there for an hour. Sometimes I have to equip myself with a gas-mask to avoid the toxic gases”, Thuan said cheerfully.
Since the rubber factories and the furnaces often operate at night to avoid power shortages, the officers are also required to work once the sun sets.
There have been countless accidents involving environment monitoring officers. Some officers have fallen down from high roofs. Some had to be treated in hospital after being exposed to hazardous chemicals while collecting samples at the sewers of industrial zones.
The job is incredibly demanding. It requires a lot of hard work from the officers. However, it is a low-paying job. Like other environment monitoring officers, Thuan is not provided with any allowance for working under unhealthy and dangerous conditions. His salary now is only VND2.5 million (USD120) per month.