BANGKOK — Avoiding the capital’s toxic smog has become a primary concern for Thitinan Maitree.
For the past five years, the civil servant, now 41, has battled respiratory health conditions that have kept her in and out of hospitals and affected almost every aspect of her routine – from where she lives and what she does to where she goes.
Though the education ministry where she works is in Bangkok’s old town, Thitinan’s house is about 20 kilometers away in the capital’s Chaeng Wattana suburb, where she lives to avoid the pollution that aggravates her asthma and chronic bronchitis, which was diagnosed in 2013.
“I try to avoid anything that would trigger it,” Thitinan said in a recent interview, adding she has felt Bangkok’s air quality worsen every year and avoided traveling to the city center unless necessary. “The traffic there is congested, and I can’t breathe clearly.”
Though the skies have cleared somewhat since last month’s pollution crisis, Thitinan, like a number of environmental experts, said more must be done to battle the problem and prevent air quality from returning to unsafe levels.
Educating the Public
Tara Buakamsri, director of Greenpeace Thailand, said there must be greater public awareness about air pollution.
He said Bangkok has Southeast Asia’s most contaminated air, citing factors such as construction dust, nearby coal power plants, motor vehicle emissions and seasonal wind direction.
One month ago on Feb. 8, an international air monitor ranked the capital among the world’s five most polluted cities when it’s Air Quality Index, or AQI, rose to a “very unhealthy” 203.
The AQI’s color-coded system measures pollution levels from zero to 500. Green – zero to 50 – means the air quality is “good.” Yellow ranges from 51 to 100 and is considered “moderate.”
Orange is “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and goes from 101 to 150. Red runs through to 200 and stands for “unhealthy,” while purple is “very unhealthy” for anything beyond 201.
Thalearngsak Petchsuwan, a top pollution control official, agreed on the need to understand the issue of pollution – specifically fine particles known as Suspended Particulate Matter. Classified by the size of the particles, those as small as 2.5 microns (PM2.5) to 10 microns (PM10) can cause severe respiratory diseases.
They are invisible to the eye. In comparison, the average diameter of a human hair is about 70 microns.
While the government says it has taken a proactive posture on the problem, critics including Greenpeace say it is ignoring the dangers of the smallest deadly particles, which it estimates kills 37,000 every year.
Thalearngsak, from the pollution department, said it would take another three years for Bangkok to be fully equipped with machines capable of detecting PM2.5. He said current readings are not entirely precise, as only six of 12 air-testing stations in the capital are suited to detect such particles.
The director blamed the three-year wait on budget allocation problems. However, he believes that “unhealthy” air is not the new normal for Bangkok.
“The situation is really good,” Thalearngsak said late last month, predicting air quality would immediately return to “normal” as Bangkok’s AQI hit 157. The AQI two days later was “unhealthy for sensitive groups” at 119. Three days later, on Feb. 27, it again broke the “unhealthy” threshold.
Both Thalearngsak and Tara said it is still too far-fetched to compare the capital’s pollution problem with that of, say, Hong Kong. On a day Bangkok was cresting “unhealthy” at 157, Hong Kong’s AQI was a “moderate” 98.
Quantifying the problem of those affected by Bangkok’s air pollution is also difficult. Statistics such as those from the World Health Organization aren’t specific to the capital. The Health Ministry has no readily available data.
But the problem affects all and isn’t going away.
Noppanan Arunvongse, a China scholar based in Beijing, said Thai authorities will eventually have to come to terms with the problem as everyone – rich or poor – breathes the same air.
“After awhile, they will be afraid of dying from lung cancer. All the related government administrators have to breathe as long as they are still human,” he said in an online comment.