6 June 2024

Fine dust is back. It accumulates, covering parts of the city and many provinces. Individuals have been exposed to unhealthy levels of tiny air pollutantsknown as PM 2.5, with sensitive people who suffer from breathing issues, heart and lung conditions, children, the elderly, and pregnant women the most affected. They are urged to be vigilant about the air quality and take precautionary steps to keep themselves safe from the harmful effects of the toxic airborne particles.

“I check the levels of harmful dust matter every day. If the air quality is bad, I don’t go out. It’s been very hard for me to breathe lately,” said Worawan Krueck, 48, who has asthma.

She and her husband planned a Bangkok vacation but the haze forced them to stay indoors. They stayed with Worawan’s family in Bangkok’s Taling Chan District, which is affected by air pollutants.

On bad days when thick smog was poisoning the air, Worawan’s asthma flared up, giving her a runny nose and a bad cough. Her 3-year-old nephew, who had a cold and allergies, was rushed to hospital. The doctor who treated him diagnosed nasal inflammation. Her 71-year-old aunt, meanwhile, also had to cope with a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing.

She couldn’t leave the house without wearing a doubled layer of masks,” Worawan said.

Due to worsening air quality situation in the city, Worawan and her husband have decided to move to stay in Hua Hin.

We couldn’t spend our vacation in Bangkok. It’s useless staying in the city if we cannot breathe,” she said, urging the government to take more action to reduce the harmful levels of air pollutants that have affected the health of residents, particularly the sensitive groups.

Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai province on the morning of March 26, 2023, as the level of PM 2.5 shoots up to over 770 microns.

Protecting students from air pollution at school

To tackle this problem, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation (ThaiHealth) has worked with schools under the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to launch the “fighting fine dust” project that aims to educate teachers, school workers, and students about the particulate matter as well as prepare them to deal with the smog. Thirty-two BMA-run schools have taken part in a pilot scheme.

Teachers were asked to undergo a training programme to learn about ultra-fine dust, for example, what is PM 2.5, what causes the pollutants, the health impacts, how to tackle the problems as well as students’ role in helping to solve them. They passed on the knowledge they’ve gained to students. Activities were also organized to encourage their participation.

Suporn Khumwong, deputy director general of the BMA’s Department of Education and acting directornoted that the project has received a good response from students.

“We saw them check air pollutant alerts from the particle dust censors being installed at schools. The readings are reported through an application,” she said.

She urged teachers and school workers to evaluate students’ health symptoms closely and follow air pollution guidelines for school safety, as instructed by the Department of Environment.

According to the guidelines, students should wear face masks properly that can protect against fine dust when outdoors and avoid doing outdoor activities for a prolonged period of time.

If the PM 2.5 readings are above 70 micrograms per cubic meter of air which exceeds Thailand’s minimum safety level of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, it’s up to headmasters and the district directors to use their discretion in ordering schools to close.

In February, many schools including Jindabumrung School in Kannayao District and Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Secondary School in Pathumwan District were ordered to close when the smog in the city worsened significantly.

Suporn said the department will have talks with ThaiHealth in order to extend the project to cover 437 BMA-run schools after the project ends in March.

Thai Health Promotion’s dust fighting campaign.

Letting the vulnerable breathe clean air

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has teamed up with ThaiHealth, Chiang Mai University and alliances to create “dust-free” rooms in an effort to reduce the negative health impacts on people, especially children, and protect them from unhealthy air pollutants.

In the initial stage, dust-free rooms were created in 30 child development and learning centers in Chiang Mai to reduce the risk of dust hazards, an important move as the fine dust situation in the province has worsened and poses health risks to residents.

“They serve as learning resources for schools wishing to develop similar rooms in order to reduce the health impacts,” said Dr Attapon Kaewsamrit, deputy director general of the Department of Healthwhich is supervised by the Ministry of Public Health.

He noted that the number of people who have fallen sick due to air pollution has increased since January.

“Many patients who are living in northern provinces have had respiratory symptoms,” he said.  

Between January 1 and March 5, more than 1.3 million people fell sick due to air pollution-related diseases according to figures from the Ministry of Public Health.  

Air pollution-related conditions reported include 583,238 cases of respiratory disease, 267,161 skin infections, 242,805 eye infections, and 208,880 cardiovascular and cerebrovascular complaints.

Between March 6 and 12, nearly 200,000 people sought treatment for illnesses linked to air pollution at hospitals and clinics.

The readings of tiny and toxic airborne particles PM 2.5 in many provinces, particularly the capital and the northern provinces, were well above safe limits during the period, according to the Pollution Control Department.

On March 12, Chiang Mai was ranked the worst in the world for air quality on IQAir global index reported by a Swiss technology company that monitors air quality in major cities worldwide. Bangkok was ranked the 10th worst in the world.

Unsafe levels of PM 2.5 were also reported in Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, Tak, Nan, Phayao, Lamphun, Lampang, Loei, Phrae, Uttaradit, Kanchanaburi, Chaiyaphum, Phetchabun, Uthai Thani and Phetchaburi provinces.

As of 10am on March 23, Chiang Mai’s reading for Air Quality Index was measured at 162, an unhealthy level.  

Over 2.6 million children from birth to six years old are living in communities with high PM 2.5 levels, Dr Attapon said, adding that air pollution increases the risk of impaired lung development for infants and children.

“Children’s breathing is much quicker than adults. Babies’ lungs are not fully grown. These health effects have long-term consequences, as damage that is caused by air pollution in their childhood can affect people all of their lives,” the doctor said.

As part of this project, an online platform that links data from all dust-free rooms is also being developed.

That allows people to search for a dust-free room near their community and stay in there to protect themselves.Dr Attapon said.

By Veena Thoopkrajae