Time to take smog seriously

Time to take smog seriously

As winter approaches, ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particles start to blanket Bangkok and other cities, posing a health threat to the public.

Last week, it was reported excessive dust levels were found in at least four districts in Bangkok, namely Bang Sue, Bang Khen, Bang Phlat, and Phasi Charoen. The dust levels ranged from 51 to 60 microgrammes per cubic metres (µg/m³), as against the Thai safety level of 50µg/m³ which is already higher than the international standard. Yesterday it hit 148µg/m³ in some areas.

Last year, pictures of people wearing face masks were plastered across the media.

The dust-induced air pollution hit Bangkok and other parts of the country in the past few years while most of the population remained unaware. However, last year's smog became critical with levels soaring to well over 100 µg/m³, causing illness and public panic.

Traffic congestion, the construction of rail systems, as well as condominium projects were blamed for Bangkok's toxic smog while the polluted air in provinces was connected to uncontrolled open burning of farm waste, especially sugar cane and corn plantations, and forest fires. The expansion of cash crops in neighbouring Myanmar and Cambodia gave rise to transboundary air pollution.

In Bangkok, the problem is aggravated between October and February -- high tourism season -- as a result of a temperature inversion that usually occurs in winter and is marked by a reversal of the normal behaviour of temperature in the troposphere, in which a layer of cool air at the surface is overlain by a layer of warmer air. Such conditions consequently block air and dust particles from an upward movement, resulting in less ventilation for 2.5 pollutants.

Problems in Chiang Mai, the tourism hub of the north, were no less serious. Last year, smog clouded the province until March.

The local authorities were unprepared, only able to offer knee-jerk reactions, including the installation of water spraying machines in public places amid heavy debate whether such measures were actually useful.

The problems are expected to recur this year since the government and local administrative bodies, including the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), have no long-term plans to tackle the issue. Sooner rather than later, the authorities will rush to install water sprayers.

The BMA's environment office played downed fears over a possible recurrence of hazardous dust particles across the city. Environment Office chief Chatri Watthanakhachon said the particle levels in these districts "may not be high all day long or every day", and that the high PM2.5 levels may "only occur during rush hours and around large construction sites such as at electric rail route projects".

It is evident that he made such statements to prevent public panic like that which occurred last year. But this is the wrong strategy. It is reminiscent of the way Chiang Mai authorities tried to play down the smog impact last year for fear of affecting tourist numbers.

Missed out completely from the chief's statement are people whose work requires them to stay outdoors such as city cleaners, vendors, motorcycle taxi riders and so on. Commuters trapped in traffic will also likely be exposed to the smog for up to an hour and a half hour a trip -- long enough to have serious health consequences over many days.

While Mr Chatri insisted he would send out inspection teams to the affected areas to ensure construction projects strictly follow guidelines on air pollution control such as by spraying water more frequently on the ground to keep the levels of dust low, he must admit the state has no measures to ease traffic congestion and it's known that car exhaust fumes contribute greatly to the toxic smog.

When the problem peaked last year, authorities mulled the promotion of electric cars instead of finding solutions to traffic jams.

So far, they have shied away from implementing long-term sustainable measures by making mass traffic more effective.

As always, it seems the poor are the hardest-hit group, with those in the upper class are better equipped to protect themselves from the pollutants.

This may lead some state authorities to think there is no need to prioritise the issue and feel no rush to put an end to the problem. Yet, health problems from toxic smog, especially among the workforce, cause heavy damage to the country's economy.

There is no excuse not to take the smog issue more seriously.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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