Duterte vows to give free masks amid reports of overpricing

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 13) — President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night said that the government will provide free respirator face masks following the reports of overpricing on the said products amid the spread of ashfall from Taal Volcano.

"Those who cannot afford masks, we will give it free [...] in times of crisis talaga all I can do to manage the situation is [to ask] the military and police," said Duterte in a chance interview with reporters.

Further, Duterte said that he would like to set a limit on the prices of face masks following the complaints.

"Mura naman 'yan bakit.... do not hoard it. Pag tinago niyo then I will be forced to order na pasukin ka," he said.

[Translation: It's so cheap...do not hoard it. If you kept them, then I will be forced to order to raid your store.]

He added that he will talk with Department of Health Secretary Francis Duque to discuss the said issue.

With ash reaching nearby areas, health officials have advised using an N95 respirator face mask, which protects against 95 percent of airborne particles — such as those spewed by the Taal Volcano in Batangas. But there are several reports that some businesses are hiking prices. Manila City Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna-Pangan said her office has received complaints that N95 masks were being sold for ₱200, from the previous ₱30.

"Those found to have unreasonably increased their prices for gas masks, face masks and other similar items, which act is tantamount to profiteering, shall be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law," the Department of Trade and Industry said on Monday.

DTI said it has sent out teams to monitor prices.

"DTI will not hesitate to file administrative and criminal charges against unscrupulous business entities and individuals who capitalize on the consumers’ urgent need for their own profit," it said in a statement.

Manila City Vice Mayor Honey Lacuna-Pangan said her office has received complaints that N95 masks were being sold for ₱200, from the previous P30. With this, Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso said that he will issue a show cause order against medical suppliers accused of jacking up prices of N95 face masks. ‬Domagoso said that those permits of the businesses involved will be revoked if they fail to explain.

Air quality

Air quality remained poor in some areas in Metro Manila as of Monday morning, according to the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

As of 11 a.m., the EMB's air quality index which measures the presence of particulate matter in the atmosphere showed better air in some locations. The atmosphere in the cities of Parañaque, Pasig and Makati were classified as moderate or fair, while that in Las Piñas and Mandaluyong remain unhealthy for sensitive groups, the EMB said. A lower score in the index means cleaner air, as it meant lesser pollutants.

According to the EMB, air quality is considered "good" when particulate matter measuring 10 micrometers or less detected in the atmosphere range from 0-54, "fair" between 55-154, "unhealthy for sensitive groups" between 155-254, "very unhealthy" at 255-354, "acutely unhealthy at 355-424, and at "emergency" level from 425-504.

Meanwhile, air quality is good as measured in monitoring stations in San Juan, Malabon City, and in Biñan, Laguna. The air in Antipolo, Rizal slipped from "good" to "fair" in the aftermath of the Taal Volcano's unrest.

Experts from the University of the Philippines National Institute of Geological Sciences said in a press briefing that while air quality in Metro Manila deteriorated on Sunday night due to the ashfall, it was still relatively better than during New Year when toxins in the air are deemed hazardous.

Air quality is worse in the areas adjacent to Taal Volcano.

Stocks low

Drugstore chain Mercury Drug announced Monday that it has run out of stock of the N95 masks, denying rumors that supplies are being hoarded.

Should the masks be replenished, the drugstore said stores located near the Taal Volcano will be prioritized.

With stocks running low, the Department of Health said people near the erupting volcano can use the rectangular face mask, but it should be covered with a damp handkerchief to keep away the small debris. Undersecretary Eric Domingo said that for those living in Metro Manila, a regular face mask will do.

Exposure to volcanic ash — which contains sulfur and silicon — can lead to throat infection, coughing, bronchitis-like illness, discomfort while breathing, eye irritation, and minor skin problems. Those living in the affected areas are advised to wear goggles and long-sleeved clothing.

Senator Nancy Binay urges the Department of Health to include face masks in relief packages to be distributed by the government.

The Philippine Coast Guard said it has transported residents of several barangays in San Nicolas, Talisay, Nasugbu, and Lemery in Bataangas to evacuation centers, with N95 masks provided to evacuees, especially for children, senior citizens, and pregnant women.

The Police Regional Office in Bicol said it will be sending at least 1,000 pieces of N95 masks for the use of rescuing cops in Calabarzon. Some 193 police personnel from Bicol's Search and Rescue, Security Force and Disaster Incident Management Task Group are also on standby to help relief efforts if needed.

Journalist Rosas Olarte contributed to this report.