Filthy skies show the need for healthier homes
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Filthy skies show the need for healthier homes

A drone carries 5 litres of water to spray over dust-critical areas of Bangkok. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
A drone carries 5 litres of water to spray over dust-critical areas of Bangkok. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

Stepping out of Suvarnabhumi Airport after a month in the US and en route to Singapore, the warm Thai welcome this time was sadly a little different than in months past. A quick look at the hazy sky and the internet explained why.

On its website, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) last month issued a travel advisory on Bangkok's air pollution, advising tourists to monitor Bangkok's air quality and take precautions when necessary as unhealthy conditions continue after the air quality index (AQI) peaked. Since then, several state agencies have taken action to curb the pollution.

Such efforts will be important, as there is little that individual tourists or Bangkok residents can do to clean the overall air or water. Still, amidst the polluted skies, there also is a need for each of us to move toward healthier homes and lifestyles. Indeed, there is hope and opportunity as evolving consumer behaviour and activism further encourages the move away from "development at any cost".

As the Milken Institute Asia Summit convened recently in Singapore, this trend was front and centre as leaders discussed how best to navigate a region in transition. Indeed, I see this also in Southeast Asia in my own work with impact investors and start-ups, including through serving on the advisory board of Equator Pure Nature. This "cleantech" company has built an expanding business across Asean of natural, eco-friendly household cleaning products under the brand name Pipper Standard, much like The Honest Company and others have done in the US.

With growing numbers of consumers in Asia concerned about the impact of polluted skies and water on them and their children, the trend toward healthier products that began in Europe and the United States has come to the Indo-Pacific region. It is time for all of Asia, including Southeast Asia, to transition to a more sustainable approach to development.

Across the Indo-Pacific region, from India to Jakarta to China and Korea, air pollution takes its deadly toll, from loss of productivity to loss of life. Increased mortality rates from strokes, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections are some of pollution's consequences, according to the World Health Organisation.

The global health agency says that some 2.2 million out of the world's 7 million premature deaths each year from household (indoor) and (outdoor) air pollution are now in Asia.

And in Asean member states, concerns continue about the possible return of haze that has in prior years covered large parts of Southeast Asia -- a result of slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia.

But there is also business opportunity amidst Asia's polluted skies. Thailand, the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia (after Indonesia), offers up a business case study.

Bangkok continues to experience some of its worst air quality in decades, as weather patterns combined with rapid urbanisation and industrial development has led to a marked increase in pollution here and across Asia. In turn, the region's pollution has contributed to accelerating allergy and asthma growth rates.

Some 18 million Thais, or more than a quarter of the population, suffer from allergies, according to Equator Pure Nature CEO Peter N Wainman, citing data from the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Association of Thailand (AAIAT). Among children in Bangkok and the surrounding areas, the rate is significantly higher, affecting some 49.3%. The rates have skyrocketed in less than a generation. Over the past decade, the number of children in the Thai capital suffering from allergic rhinitis has climbed 40%.

Thailand's rising allergy rates parallel those in China, where more than 460 million people suffer from allergies, according to the World Allergy Organisation.

In the US, one of five people has allergies, and rates among children have tripled since the 1960s. The causes for the spike are likely both environmental and genetic, but some doctors say the trend's explosive scale suggests that heritable factors are less likely to be the primary culprit. Pollution can heighten sensitivity to common allergens, such as dust mites, or can trigger allergic development later in life. The same can be said of second-hand cigarette smoke.

A global consumer trend toward organic, all-natural products seeks to reassert control over environmental factors at the most local level: in the home. Mr Wainman and I have seen this same movement take root in Bangkok, where organic farmers' markets, all-natural body care, skin care and spa products, and hypoallergenic, nontoxic cleaning brands all have witnessed strong growth in recent years.

Mr Wainman, a former US investment banker, experienced a debilitating allergic reaction 10 years ago that he tells me he traced back to a chemical fabric softener he was using at home. The ordeal led him to work on the underlying technology that ultimately led to his creation of the Pipper Standard branded line of natural home cleaning products, made from fermented pineapple, and his overall effort to in essence change the nature of cleaning for good.

"I knew I couldn't do anything about the traffic or pollution outside, but I had power over what I brought into my home," Mr Wainman says.

Indeed, the Pipper Standard message --"A healthy environment starts at home"-- sums up well one of the growing opportunities that exists in Asia for smart companies seeking to leverage consumer trends and concerns related to the region's enduring pollution challenge.

In Thailand's polluted skies, I see not just challenge but opportunity. As Asia's overall economic influence grows, so too will that of the region's consumers.

Growing consumer experience with air pollution and its consequences is likely to continue to drive the trend away from chemical-based to more natural products. This will be to the clear benefit and the health of businesses and consumers alike.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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