SEOUL -- In a policy change to cope with air pollution caused by fine dust and other hazardous particles that caused a widespread health scare in South Korea, American troops based in South Korea were allowed to wear filtering masks while in uniform.
Fine dust, which refers to particles smaller than 10 micrometers, causes various respiratory problems. China has been cited in South Korea as the main culprit for aggravating particulate pollution on the Korean peninsula, but experts also point to power plants and vehicles using fossil fuel.
It's common for Seoul citizens to cover their mouth and nose with facial masks in the streets. Citizens were exposed to fine dust often throughout this winter, with Seoul and nearby areas hit by a record level of fine dust for days in early March despite various steps to reduce pollution.
Some 28,000 American troops based in South Korea under a mutual defense pact had been barred from wearing masks while in uniform. U.S. commander General Robert B. Abrams has changed that policy, according to the official twitter of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).
A policy letter signed by Abrams showed that the new policy applies to all U.S. military personnel based in South Korea. "From 2015~2017, air pollution levels near U.S. bases in South Korea exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for poor air quality approximately 100 days each year."
The U.S. military tweeted that policy letter "allows for the elective use of filtering masks by service members in uniform in the event of elevated particulate air pollution levels."
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