Hazy shade of winter
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Hazy shade of winter

As Bangkok's air pollution settles into a familiar yearly pattern, solutions are proving hard to come by

Bangkok city is covered in smog as the level of PM2.5 dust surged to an unhealthy level on Jan 20.
Bangkok city is covered in smog as the level of PM2.5 dust surged to an unhealthy level on Jan 20.

Waking up to a misty skyline resembling the mysterious town of Silent Hill, a survival horror video game, with the haze foreshadowing obscured dangers lurking in thick smog, is jarring for all Bangkok residents.

The level of particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres, or ultra-fine dust particles, in the Bangkok area has exceeded the permissible "safe" threshold of 50 microgrammes per cubic metre since early this month.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) ordered 437 schools in Bangkok to close last Wednesday because of the hazardous dust levels. The BMA has since decided to reopen all these schools after the air quality in the capital improved slightly.

PM2.5 dust is extremely harmful, as these ultra-fine dust particles are small enough to pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream, with long-term exposure leading to respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses such as lung cancer, heart disease and stroke.

The Pollution Control Department has set 50 microgrammes as Thailand's safe level, while the World Health Organisation's limit is 25.

Kasikorn Research Centre estimated that economic losses from the dust problem on public health and tourism could be as high as 6 billion baht between Jan 5 and Feb 5.

The government is being attacked for failing to tackle air pollution, in particular PM2.5.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said recently that enforcing laws to reduce PM2.5 is difficult. He added that the public was partly to blame for the poor air quality.

"The public is responsible and a culprit in the PM2.5 problem," Gen Prayut told the media during a mobile cabinet event in Narathiwat province. "Yet we cannot simply put the blame on people and penalise all the polluters because the outcome of penalty measures will create other serious problems for society. We need to rely on asking for cooperation."

A campaigner wears an oxygen mask while attending last week's 'Right to Clean Air' demonstration. Chanat Katanyu


While there are still no signs that the smog will dissipate soon, the government is considering whether to impose a ban on personal car use in affected areas to cope with high levels of hazardous ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particles in the air if levels exceed 100 microgrammes per cu m, or twice the safety level.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said that if measures against lorries emitting black smoke prove insufficient, personal cars could be targeted next.

A single culprit for the recent bout of air pollution can't be named, but the situation has been exacerbated by weather conditions that have not allowed the pollutants to disperse, according to the UN Environment Programme.

The main factors triggering the air pollution are weather conditions and a lack of urban planning and green space, said Pisut Painmanakul, a professor in the department of environmental engineering at Chulalongkorn University.

The root causes include exhaust emitted from cars, open-air burning of waste in rural provinces and neighbouring countries, and air pollution from industrial factories and power plants, Prof Pisut said.

"For Bangkok, exhaust from traffic congestion, open-air burning, urban density and below-average green space create conditions liable to worsen air pollution," he said.

Enforcing fines and arresting drivers in cars that emit black exhaust and individuals burning garbage in the open are short-term measures the government can implement to tackle air pollution, Prof Pisut said.

Citizens can also help report air polluters and protect themselves by wearing masks to filter out airborne particles, he said.

Addressing the root causes of air pollution, expanding green space, improving public transport infrastructure and enforcing strict regulations on traffic control and fuel are medium- and long-term measures suggested to tackle the problem, Prof Pisut said.

In urban areas, prompt adoption of the Euro 5 emission standard by large petroleum companies, such as PTT and Bangchak Corporation, is needed to help address Bangkok's worsening air quality, while the Excise Department should come up with price incentives for drivers to use more biodiesel fuels, said Adis Israngkura, adviser for resource sustainability and mitigation policy at the Thailand Development Research Institute.

While banning open-air burning of used sugar cane in rural provinces is ideal, the move needs to be addressed structurally, Mr Adis said.

As sugar prices are under the Commerce Ministry's price control list, the price controls see sugar-cane millers squeezing farmers' profit margins, pressuring farmers to resort to open-air burning, which is the most cost-efficient approach to disposal of sugar-cane husks.

"The dust problem is expected to reoccur over the next few years as our society tends to compromise, and the upgrade to Euro 5 emission standards will take some time to materialise," Mr Adis said.


In the Bangkok area, 64% of PM2.5 particles come from transport sector emissions, such as vehicles on roads.

Diesel-engine vehicles release higher emissions, of sulphur particularly, than petrol cars and motorcycles.

Thailand adopted the European emissions standard to determine policies for vehicles and fuels, but many standards and time frames have been mandated alongside.

At present, Thailand applies Euro 4, lagging behind Singapore, where the jump from Euro 4 to Euro 6 was made in September 2017.

With different Euro emission standards for vehicles, the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI) announced last Wednesday that commercial vehicle distributors had agreed to provide a 20% discount on maintenance services and 30% on spare parts for big trucks and buses.

The measure by the private sector will last for one month, starting Feb 1.

"Many big trucks and buses have been in use for over 10 years, so they need replacements of filters, engines and lubricants," said Suparat Sirisuwanangkura, the FTI's vice-chairman.

"In Japan, the government requires intensive maintenance for core engines, emission filters and spare parts; otherwise, commercial vehicles are not allowed to be used on roads," he said.

Thongyoo Kongkhan, adviser chairman of the Land Transport Federation of Thailand, said truck operators have agreed with the government to tackle the air pollution problem.

"We disagree with some measures such as the prohibition of trucks entering inner Bangkok on certain days," he said, adding that the problem would not be resolved and truck operators in the logistics business would be harmed.


With Bangkok's skyline draped in smog, tourism confidence remains gloomy as visitors opt for indoor activities.

Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks, said Thailand should learn from best practices in other top regional destinations.

Singapore leads the pack in sustainable practices by promoting green areas in the heart of the city and reducing pollution in the long run.

Far across the Pacific, 100% Pure New Zealand is a successful national tourism campaign that highlights clean air and natural experiences, characteristics that have become ingrained in New Zealand's image.

According to the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, Thailand ranked 130th in environmental sustainability. New Zealand landed the top spot among Asia-Pacific countries in the category, while Singapore was positioned in 61st place.

Mr Barnett said more swift actions should be taken because the smog can damage Thailand's allure if unresolved problems persist.

Pollution in Thailand is a national issue that needs a government initiative to set up a long-term plan, which should be put into effect as soon as possible, he said.

"Thailand has 40 million international tourists, and more people will come," he said. "The government has to come up with a solution for the future, not only for today."

China is a case study for Thailand, he said. The world's second-largest economy used to endure bad air quality, but an internal social movement managed to highlight the problem, and the government took action to address it.

China prohibited new coal-fired power plants in the country's most polluted regions, including the Beijing area, The New York Times reported. Existing plants were told to reduce their emissions. If they didn't, coal was replaced with natural gas.

Large cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, restricted the number of cars on the road. The country also reduced iron- and steel-making capacity and shut down coal mines.

Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Yuthasak Supasorn said the organisation's main responsibility is to communicate with stakeholders in the tourism industry. Official information from a reliable source, such as the Pollution Control Department, will be disseminated to the TAT's overseas offices, which will keep tourists informed.

"While awaiting effective measures, the best we can do is give correct information to both Thai and international tourists to beware of unhealthy air in Bangkok and suggest tour agents to notice health conditions of customers and avoid outdoor activities as much as possible," Mr Yuthasak said.


After the PM2.5 level increased, GrabFood orders from Jan 7 to 20 rose by roughly 20%, especially in urban areas such as Thong Lor, Silom, Sathon and Asok, said Chantsuda Thananitayaudom, country marketing head of Grab Thailand.

Most orders came during lunch and dinner time, when people chose to stay in their offices or at home to avoid exposure to small dust particles, she said.

Line Man, one of GrabFood's fiercest competitors, also experienced a similar surge in food order patterns amid worsening air quality.

As the PM2.5 level soared in January, recording 137 microgrammes per cu m of dust particles on Jan 18 and 162 the following day, Line Man's daily food transaction number was 6% higher than the average daily transaction number in January.

"We might say there is a positive relationship," said Jayden Kang, chief strategy officer of Line Thailand, who oversees on-demand service Line Man. "The more the PM2.5 level increases, the higher food transaction numbers rise."

Online food orders are not the only business that has benefited from unsafe air quality. A surge in air purifier orders has also been recorded.

With the hazards of breathing in Bangkok, sales of air purifiers and face masks on the Lazada platform have been increasing rapidly over the past month, said Jack Zhang, deputy chief executive of Lazada Thailand.

From Jan 10 to 20, sales of air purifiers alone surged by 34 times, with sales of PM2.5-protection face masks soaring by eight times from early December.

"Lazada is working with sellers and brands to ensure there will be sufficient supply to meet customer demand and sellers do not hike prices or take advantage of customers in this situation," Mr Zhang said.

Lamonphet Apisitniran and Pathom Sangwongwanich

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