It’s getting all shrouded in grey outside, again. Even though I have been living in Thailand for quite some time, the poor air quality is still something I can’t get used to, and will probably never be able to.
It is very common for those residing in big cities such as Bangkok to draw open the curtains, only to be embraced by the jarring sight of smog and haze.
Earlier this year, Greenpeace made a public appeal to the prime minister to tackle the air pollution crisis in Bangkok, after the city recorded the worst air quality ever in history. This month, the government has responded by launching a series of stringent measures with the aim of reducing the health impacts of air pollution by 25 percent by 2030.
As November marks Lung Cancer Awareness Month, I would like to take this opportunity to look at the causes, health impacts, and possible solutions to the hazardous air quality.
The PM situation in Bangkok
Air pollution in the Land of Smiles this February has become so serious that the government has urged residents to wear face masks, and children to stay indoors. PM2.5 dust hit the dangerous level of 72-95 micrograms per m3 (compared with the WHO guideline of an annual average of no more than 10 micrograms per m3).
For those who are not familiar with PM2.5, they are tiny toxic particulate matter that are not visible unless seen under a microscope, and measure less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. However, these particles can literally carry detrimental chemicals into our body and are linked to a whole host of health conditions.
While Air Quality Index (AQI) formulas usually include up to six main pollutants including PM2.5, PM10, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ground-level ozone, the official AQI in Thailand did not set PM 2.5 particles as an indicator. However, this has changed when the Pollution Control Department (PCD) announced that they would start including this indicator in the Air4Thai App last month.
Causes of air pollution
While the causes of air pollution in Thailand are multifold, as with those in other countries, the growing emission of poisonous gases from vehicles and factories accounts for a large proportion of air pollution. Worse still, many Southeast Asian (SEA) countries have projected to triple its coal emissions by 2030 so as to meet the skyrocketing demand for electricity.
Controlled burn practices in agriculture also add fuel to the fire. In northern Thailand, it is still rather common for farmers to burn rice stubble to clear stubble and weeds before sowing.
Additionally, poor urban planning and insufficient green spaces are also to blame. For example, a high level of urban sprawl may contribute to higher concentrations of air pollutants, poor ventilation, and the urban heat island (UHI) effect.
Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, population density is negatively associated with concentrations of PM2.5. This is because more centralized urban areas exhibited less dependence over automobiles, and shorter traveling distances.
Health impacts of air pollution
People constantly exposed to serious air pollution, in the long run, will be vulnerable to a number of health risks, such as:
Asthma is one of the most common types of respiratory ailments. Research has shown that emissions caused by human activity resulted in approximately 37% of ozone-influenced asthma-related ED visits and 73% of asthma-related ED visits.
Tiny particles less than PM2.5 can inflame and constrict your blood vessels, thereby increasing your blood pressure. They may also dislodge fatty plaque and weave clots that can block the blood flow to your heart.
Invisible and poisonous particles can penetrate your lungs' protective barriers and lodge toxic compounds deeper, thereby contributing to the development of lung cancer. This study has found a strong correlation between PM2.5 and the risk of mortality from lung cancer.
Although scientists have yet to find the causal relationship, more researches have found that air pollution is linked to extremely high mortality in people with mental disorders. It is found that hazy days have a very adverse impact on mortality associated with mental and behavior disorders.
Possible solutions to air pollution
This November, the government has devised stricter monitoring of air pollution and prevention measures during the haze season in the North and in Bangkok. These efforts are aimed at lowering air pollution at its source, including restrictions on the movement of trucks in the city center, a burning ban for this haze season in the North, and collaboration with neighboring countries to mitigate the transboundary haze problem.
Aside from stricter environmental regulation and effective enforcement of those laws, the government should also explore alternative solutions for energy production in the long run.
As a matter of fact, Southeast Asian countries have their own edges when it comes to new energy development thanks to their rich renewable energy resources. For instance, Thailand is well known for its abundance of solar insolation, and some coastal areas in Thailand are ideal spots for wind turbines with reasonable wind speeds.
Get yourself medically and financially protected from air pollution
Of course, neither the new measures from the government or the new energy revolution can solve the deep-seated problem of air pollution overnight. Meanwhile, apart from wearing masks and avoiding outdoor activities and heavy traffic when the air is unsafe, you can protect your long-term health by purchasing the right health insurance plan.
You can enjoy unrivalled peace of mind in knowing that you will be covered against the medical expenses of treating air pollution-related health conditions.