All choking aside, is Thailand making progress in battle with air pollution?
Many Thais have developed a habit of checking the air quality index daily so they can take steps to protect themselves against lung-busting PM2.5 dust. However, the quest for clean air and easy breathing is costing them up to Bt1.67 billion per year in masks and medical expenses.
And this trend shows no sign of blowing over.
Most citizens as well as experts reckon the Thai government is doing little or nothing to clean up the air.
“People may think the National Environment Board [NEB] has the power to order relevant parties to fight smog, but in reality, it’s a paper tiger,” said Dr. Sonthi Kitchawat, an environmental and health academic.
According to Sonthi, Bangkokians would be wrong to assume that 10 more electric train lines and Euro5 emission standards by 2024 will reduce the amount of fine dust particles in the air. This is because there are still 11 million vehicles plying the streets of Bangkok. Almost all run on fossil fuels, pumping out noxious fumes that feed PM2.5 haze.
In the past year, over 400,000 vehicles have joined the millions already on Bangkok roads.
The situation is worsened by high-rises that continue to mushroom across the capital. Buildings above the height of 23 meters block the flow of air needed to flush out pollutants. Busy Silom Road, which is sandwiched by skyscrapers and home to a large Skytrain station, has three times more PM2.5 dust particles than anywhere else in the city.
PM2.5 dust particles measure 2.5 microns or less – small enough to lodge themselves in the lungs and cause long-term health problems that can be fatal.
While travel restrictions and work-from-home culture during the pandemic have lowered emissions to an extent, air pollution in Thailand has still hit dangerous levels several times over the past two years.
Costs of pollution
The World Bank estimates that air pollution-related healthcare expenses are equivalent to 4 percent of a country’s GDP. Apart from the economic and health impacts, pollution also takes a toll on the people whose friends and family are sickened by foul air.
Poor air quality can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, cause shortness of breath, aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions, as well as damage the heart and cardiovascular system. Breathing polluted air for long periods can cause more serious problems, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Seasonal heavy smog has plagued nine provinces across the North of Thailand for nearly a decade now. In recent years, the problem has spread to Greater Bangkok, fuelled by emissions from vehicles, construction, and industry.
Sacrificing people’s health for economic growth is unacceptable, insists Assoc Prof Witsanu Attavanich, who teaches at Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Economics. Polluters should be held responsible for the environmental and social damage they cause, he said.
“We should evaluate the [environmental] impact of economic activities and make the polluters pay. There should also be incentives for reducing pollution,” he added.
Road traffic accounts for 51 percent of the PM2.5 particles in the air, according to a 2019 study by the King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi and the Pollution Control Department (PCD).
The industrial sector is responsible for 21 percent, households for 10 percent, other modes of transport account for 9.5, and outdoor fires for 6 percent. The rest is caused by the energy, agriculture, and waste management sectors.
Hope from Clean Air Bill
A petition with 24,000 signatures backing the draft Clean Air Bill will be submitted to Parliament on January 21. The draft states that people have the right to access air-quality indices and transparency over the source of pollution. It also empowers officials to take action to ensure better air quality.
Meanwhile, the EnLawThai Foundation has threatened to sue relevant authorities if they fail to urgently implement plans/measures to improve air quality.
Foundation secretary-general Surachai Trongngam said NEB and the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry have yet to revise Thailand’s PM2.5 safe limit in line with the latest standard set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO has set the PM2.5 safe limit at 5 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) of air for an annual average and 15µg/m3 over 24 hours. This is a far cry from Thailand’s standard, which allows 25µg/m3 as an annual average and 50µg/m3 for the 24-hour level.
Late last year, a petition filed with the Chiang Mai Administrative Court called on the NEB to demand that Thailand’s 24-hour safe level be reduced to 37µg/m3.
NEB in fact came up with a draft announcement to lower the level for some time, but this has yet to be implemented.
What has the govt done?
In 2019, the Cabinet approved a plan to solve the PM2.5 problem and added it to the national agenda. It also put in place regulations to control the level of fine dust particles, such as limiting the scope of large construction projects.
It also ordered random emission checks on vehicles, while PCD has tightened emission standards significantly. Since last October, 11,400 cars have been flagged down for emitting too much exhaust pollution.
The PCD, the Meteorological Department, and the Health Department are also providing daily updates of dust-particle levels, as well as forecasts on what to expect over the next three days.
Meanwhile, the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority has replaced 489 of its air-conditioned petrol buses with NGV or natural gas vehicles.
And the Department of Industrial Works now requires factories to install continuous emission monitoring systems (CEMS).
‘More action needed’
Theeravuth Temsiriwattanakul, a lawyer who co-drafted the Clean Air Bill, believes authorities still have a lot to do alongside pushing through the draft law.
“For instance, we should have a fund to purify the air. Vulnerable people should be provided with air purifiers,” he said.
In his opinion, if the Clean Air Bill is passed, then a clean air fund can be financed by an additional excise tax on polluting fuel sources.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk