Boost air pollution control

Boost air pollution control

In recent days, most city residents have been preoccupied with navigating heavy rains and floods, so a report by Greenpeace India last week on air pollution and access to air quality data may have gone unnoticed.

Bangkok is notorious for its polluted and hazy skyline between November and February, when particulate matter (PM2.5) seems glued to the sky. Thus, as we approach the season-end of one weather-related headache, it seems another is waiting to greet us, especially when observing past data and trends from 2020.

Greenpeace said that in Thailand, no region achieved the World Health Organization's recommended annual average concentration of PM2.5 or 5 µg/m3, and almost half the country's population lived in areas where the average PM2.5 concentration was five times the WHO limit.

This is shocking considering how air pollution poses a public health risk and increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer, with vulnerable groups such as infants, pregnant women, seniors and individuals with health conditions especially at risk. The opportunity to live in a healthy and clean environment is a basic right that should be guaranteed, rather than fought for.

In Bangkok, the brunt of the blame for toxic air emission is assigned to vehicle emissions, while in other heavy polluted regions such as Chiang Mai, agricultural burning and transboundary haze from monoculture farming in Myanmar is said to be the main cause.

Although strict regulations have been imposed, heavy industries are generally spared. Most factories are only being fined or their operations suspended briefly. Unfortunately, it took an explosion back in July 2021 at the Ming Dih Chemical in Bang Phli district, which spilt toxic fumes into the air for days, for a tripartite alliance of ENLAWTHAI, Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand and Greenpeace Thailand to come together and push a petition for the creation of a pollution database, or the pollutant release and transfer register (PRTR).

If passed into law, this database would require industries to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions, regulate chemical emissions and meet strict safety standards. Such a system has already been implemented in 50 countries and helps local regulatory bodies make decisions and evaluate exposure levels and potential threats in any given area.

The Ming Dih explosion saw over 30 people injured and many others temporarily displaced, causing not only chaos but also damaging economic production. Although no accident is preventable, a PRTR could reduce the risk of such environmental incidents.

The government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has yet to pursue such a system, arguing that it would pose a financial burden. Instead the Water Resources Act 2018, and Public Health Act 1992 serve as the de-facto laws that regulate chemical emissions.

There is also pushback by industries against PRTR as they wrongly assume reporting would be a burden to "doing business" and add another layer of responsibility, when in reality it would integrate in line with existing laws. Without political desire, it remains to be seen when such a system would be introduced, but a new government which might take shape after the next election is cause for optimism.

To reduce the health risks posed by air pollution, there needs to be a multi-step approach. The government must also invest in better monitoring or AQI (air quality index) systems to provide accurate and timely information about the presence of harmful chemicals in the air. Thailand has just 138 monitoring stations. Most air quality problems occur in urban areas such as Bangkok, Samut Prakan and Nonthaburi. Yet almost half or 43% of the population lives more than 25km from an AQI station monitoring system.

In addition, Pollution Control Department has also turned a deaf ear to calls for air monitoring stations at highly polluting farm areas such as sugar cane farms that often used massive slash-and-farming methods. With a lack of data, people remain oblivious to the dangers around them, which obscures potential health burdens that will affect the healthcare system in the future. The sky doesn't need to be hazy for pollution to pose a risk, as clear skies can also be contaminated with damaging chemicals.

As unpredictable weather and changing environmental conditions continue, the government should implement measures that benefit the health of citizens.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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