Nearby residents breathed a sigh of relief after a gas leak at a factory owned by Indorama Ventures Plc in Nahon Pathom on Thursday morning was quickly contained.
The leak of two toxic chemicals -- diphenyl oxide and biphenyl used as heat transfer fluid -- was brought under control within 10 minutes. But the smell from the leak was reported as far as 20km away from the factory and the government ordered a number of schools and universities to close due to safety concerns.
The factory, which produces polyester fibres, yarns and chips, was ordered to suspend operations for 15-days while an investigation and maintenance were carried out.
Despite there being no serious injuries nor broader threats of pollution, the accident again raises concerns about the threat of chemical accidents at factories. Thousands of factories, of which many use hazardous chemical substances, are located in community areas instead of in isolated industrial estates. Many of these factories were established before communities were built around them. Indeed many were likewise built before land zoning and industrial estate zones were put in place.
But no matter what their origins are, the co-existence of communities and factories has caused fears about accidents and the subsequent impact such events could have on people's health. These fears have been substantiated by a number of accidents from hazardous chemical leakages and fire accidents.
Despite clear and present dangers, Thailand does not have sufficient measures in place that enhance safety standards at factories and in communities. Many community residents are unaware of what is being kept inside nearby factories, nor are they trained in what to do if an accident does occur.
The level of safety is dependent on the capacity and attention of each factory. In the case of Thursday's accident, the community was lucky -- the factory, which belongs to a SET-listed company, had a sufficient emergency response. But safety standards should be a collective issue; a norm instead of luck and individual capacity.
The accident again reminds us that the government needs to pass a pollutant release and transfer register (PRTR) law which has been proposed by civic and environmental groups. PRTR is a system for collecting and disseminating information about environmental releases and transfers of hazardous substances from industrial and other facilities. Some 50 countries around the world employ PRTR. With such a law, community residents will be better informed about the risk of industrial pollution and the risk of disaster posed by nearby factories.
Civic groups sent bill proposals to the Upper House in 2021 and 2022, only to be rejected. Government and lawmakers classified them as financial legislation and therefore needed more scrutiny by related ministries such as finance and industry. The Industry Ministry, which oversees factory operations, was not supportive. It reasoned that factories are required to inform the ministry about chemical substances in their possession. But that does little to help bolster safety as current laws do not force the government to reveal relevant data to the public.
It remains unknown when Thailand will have such a necessary law to improve community safety. We can only hope that political parties give attention to this crucial law that if passed will certainly improve safety and the environment.