Driving home after work during the second week of March, the setting sun was spectacular: a molten, pink-red globe, its colours intensified by a thick shroud of smog. 'There is a price to pay for skies that look like this,' I couldn't help but think. I had seen a similar sunset over 10 years before, in South Africa, when a spate of brutal forest fires had ravaged the mountains encircling Cape Town. In that instance, payment was made in the form of a massive loss of plant and animal life, as well as a number of houses that met a fiery demise at the tongues of the inferno. This time, public health paid the price.
In a blissfully air-conditioned office at the Unit for Social and Environmental Research in Chiang Mai, researcher Po Garden pulls up the official NASA Earth Observatory site (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/), clicking on a aerial photograph of South East Asia taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Nasa's Aqua satellite. With the image blown up to full size, I can see a myriad of tiny red dots marking the locations of agricultural and forest fires. Burma is ablaze: like flesh bleeding from a multiplicity of pin pricks, flames rage across the country, so concentrated in some areas that the crimson dots blur into violent smudges. The burn sites, known as 'hot spots', become less savagely dense outside the borders of the military-controlled state, though Laos and Northern Thailand are also generously smattered with red. While annual burning practices and forest fires have caused hot season smog in Northern Thailand for centuries, the situation has worsened significantly in recent years, compounded by toxic vehicle emissions and dust from industry and construction. Further exacerbated by unusual weather conditions, including the lack of rain and a cold air mass that prevented dust particles from dissipating into the atmsophere, this year's burning resulted in Thailand's worst airborne crisis to date.
During the first two weeks of March, air pollution levels in Chiang Mai and the surrounding regions rose steadily above the safety limit; produced an eye-stinging, throat-burning, yellow-tinged haze that cut visibility down to less than 1000 metres. A profusion of minute dust particles, measuring less than 10 microns in diameter and known as PM10, pervaded the atmosphere, reaching a peak on March 14th at 383 µg/m3 (microgrammes per cubic metre) - over three times the acceptable safety ceiling of 120 µg/m3 - eventually prompting authorities to issue warnings against outdoor exercise and to declare the worst affected Chiang Mai districts, Chai Prakan and Phrao, haze disaster areas.
'As you can see from this satellite image, air pollution is usually a cross-country issue, not something that one small region can deal with in isolation,' says Garden. 'Sure, the air pollution is bad in Chiang Mai, but the scale of engagement has got to be a lot bigger than just Chiang Mai city or Chiang Mai province for things to get better. We don't know exactly how far pollution travels, how far dust is coming from, but from these images it seems that solving the problem needs to be a trans-boundary initiative.' Air pollution in Chiang Mai last exceeded 300 µg/m3 in the late 1990s, when forest fires blazed in Indonesia: a fact that seems to support Garden's statement. Another obstacle to resolving the issue, even within Thailand's perimeters alone, is the complexity of the problem, explains Garden. 'Many interacting factors are involved and most likely it is not a question of what has happened in the last 5 years, but what has happened over the last two or three decades to make this happen. And it may take just as long to resolve - this is not a short-term issue.'
So how do such severe levels of air pollution affect our health? The Public Health Ministry has estimated that up to 500,000 people were affected by the pollution crisis this year. Hospitals and clinics across the North reported a surge in the number of patients with respiratory problems during the month of March, an average increase of approximately 20 per cent from the same period in 2006.
Even more worrying is the potential for poor air quality to affect health in the long term. Particulate matter small enough to be breathed in is known as either PM10 or PM2.5, referring to dust particles smaller than 10 microns or 2.5 microns respectively. 'PM10 particles are small enough to be stored in the trachea, while PM2.5 matter is so minute that it can penetrate even deeper, into the alveoli, the air cells of the lungs," says Associate Professor Usanee Vinitketkumnuen of Chiang Mai University's Biochemistry Department. 'The PM10 dust causes irritation of the trachea that may lead to bronchitis or bronchial symptoms such as respiratory difficulties, a tight chest. This is particularly dangerous for asthma patients, children and elderly residents, who are at high risk when air pollution is above the maximum safety level. If we breathe in these dust particles over a long period of time, they can destroy the lung cells. And if this happens repeatedly, there is the potential for gene mutation that finally becomes lung cancer.' Research conducted by CMU found that the highest rate of lung cancer in Thailand was in Saraphee, an area known for a frequently high concentration of PM10 dust particles.
The response of the government to the air pollution crisis has been slow and lacklustre at best. Measures initiated by government departments include restricting the activity of barbeque vendors; keeping the moat fountains on 24 hours a day in an attempt to raise humidity and dispel dust; and a proposal to move the songkran celebrations forward - all superficial solutions to a deeply entrenched and complex problem. Despite media and public outcry for a national ban on burning, authorities failed to control fires in forests and agricultural areas across the North, while, on March 18th, the Royal Forestry Department finally issued a statement detailing several safety and precautionary measures to deal with wildfires in the province - weeks after the smog crisis began. Similarly, on March 21st, as pollution levels in Mae Hong Son remained above 300 µg/m3, Deputy Mayor Praphan Buranuprakorn eventually issued a statement to say that the municipality would crack down on outdoor burning and vehicle emissions with heavy fines, as well as initiate legal and public health measures to combat the problem.
However, the complexity of the air pollution issue is as integral to its proposed solutions as to its causes. 'Placing a sudden national or trans-country ban on burning is a tricky issue, considering the number of ethnic minorities that depend on slash and burn agriculture for their livelihood', says Po Garden. 'It would really impact most harshly on the poorest of the poor.' Rather than a short-term reaction to air pollution, what is needed to resolve the Northern disaster is a long-term programme of education and planning. Sadly, the focus of government, media and public attention on the air we breathe seems as transient as the haze itself. In June 2004, Thaksin waxed lyrical about tackling the pollution problem and a budget of 1.84 billion baht was approved for Chiang Mai province to finance alleviation of traffic congestion, waste water treatment of the Ping River, a circular electric train system, waste refuge treatment and the control of air pollution. One has to wonder where, exactly, it all went.Local people are urged to inform officials of outdoor burning via the Environment Office's hotline number 053-890000.
"You would never drink fuel, so why because of someone else's laziness should you be forced to inhale fuel in an airborne form?"
Smoke from forest fires is one of many types of air pollution. Just a few months ago, before the forest burning began, there were still songtaew and buses belching black smoke, tuk-tuk producing white and grey clouds and two-stroke motorbikes adding a nice blue tinge to the air . . . Around every corner a rainbow of toxicity for all to inhale.
Let's look deeper into the blacks, whites and blues of vehicle emissions. Every day you inhale some 10,000 litres of polluted air. Around Chiang Mai the streets offer a mix of the most consummate diesel, gasoline and natural gas pollutants any country can offer.
What is quite ironic is people complaining about natural wood smoke that you can see, but semi-visible poisonous petro-chemical fumes are dismissed as just part of life here in Thailand. That malodorous dose of carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, continues to go un-checked and un-talked about.
Pollution pouring out of exhaust pipes from different vehicles is a result of incomplete burning of fuel that enters the engine. Out of tune engines do not burn all of the fuel entering them, un-burnt liquid fuel is changed to a vapour and sent out the exhaust pipe as multi-coloured smoke. In reality the black, white or blue smoke is vaporised gasoline, diesel and natural gas that you are breathing. You would never drink fuel, so why because of someone else's laziness should you be forced to inhale fuel in an airborne form? Vehicle emissions contain Al, Aluminum; As, Arsenic; Cd, Cadmium; Co, Cobalt; Cr, Chromium; Cu, Copper; Fe, Iron; Mn, Manganese; Mo, Molybdenum; Ni, Nickel; Pb, Lead; Ti, Titanium; V, Vanadium and Zn, Zinc which in airborne form are considered toxins. These metals can also enter your body through the skin, so a pollution mask only goes so far in protecting your health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that diesel exhaust is around 40 times more carcinogenic (cancer causing) than cigarette smoke on a weight/volume basis. Add in a group of cancer causing compounds known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which include formaldehyde, methane, benzene, phenol, 1-3-butadiene (base ingredient for synthetic rubber) and ammonia swirling around and you will understand why over the last six months so many travellers have complained about bad air around the city and subsequently decided to leave Chiang Mai days earlier than they had planned. Speaking in economic terms, it is a fact that 100,000 visitors come to Chiang Mai each week during the low season. If each of those 100,000 people decided to leave one day earlier than planned, how much lost revenue is that for hotels, restaurants and tour operators? Imagine they left two days earlier? What if they skipped Chiang Mai altogether?
When The Nation published an article stating that air pollution is more than twice the normal average in Chiang Mai, you would have thought local politicians would have started discussing the issue. Sorry, no. In Thailand it comes down to citizens in the community that want to help on a local level, not government.
Enter Dr. Anucha Promwungkwa, Assistant Professor for the Energy Management and Conversation Centre (EMAC) in Chiang Mai University (CMU), a visionary man who wants to improve air quality and reduce Thailand's energy dependence from foreign nations through the use of bio-diesel produced locally. Together with EMAC he has started a Used Vegetable Oil (UVO) collection programme that accepts donations of cooking oil or animal fat from factories, slaughter houses, restaurants, fresh markets and individual family households around Chiang Mai. Initially he was looking for solutions to reduce the amount of waste oil dumped into the sewers which clogged pipes and required cleaning by hand or the addition of chemical solvents to remove the sludge.
Dr. Anucha explained that in petrol stations throughout Thailand the blend is 5% biodiesel mixed with 95% petro-chemical diesel or (B5). If the percentage of biodiesel is increased to 20% (B20) there is a 20-50% reduction in vehicle emissions and a 16-28% reduction in carbon monoxide. Other benefits include 40-50% reduced engine wear due to increased lubrication, 3-10% fuel economy improvement and a 2-3 baht lower cost at the pump than straight diesel. Biodiesel is also sold in B50 and B100 forms, which reduce emissions 80-100%. I asked if laws could be passed to force drivers to tune up their engines or switch to (B20-50-100) to improve air quality, but it seems the only way to get others to change is willingly, by explaining and showing them the advantages first hand. Get them to co-operate because they want to, because it benefits us all. Forcing policies on a population has not worked throughout history, but education as to why cleaner air and a cleaner environment is beneficial traditionally has. Education, not laws, is the way forward for change.