During the morning of Sept 22, many residents in Nakhon Pathom province awoke to a foul smell they were unfamiliar with, irritating both their eyes and noses. In neighbouring Nonthaburi, some people were reported to be coughing and sneezing after noticing a "burning-like" smell.
On social media, news or rumours of a chemical leak tend to spread like wildlife, with confusion sown quickly amid a lack of detail. At the time of this latest episode, one Twitter user wrote: "So which chemicals are leaking and where? There's no news at all."
The leak emanated from a plastic factory owned by Indorama Polyester Industries in Khun Kaew subdistrict of Nakhon Chai Si district. The factory produces polyester and PET plastic beads, and is a subsidiary of Indorama Ventures, a multinational manufacturer of plastic products.
According to the Pollution Control Department (PCD), the leaked substance was "hot oil down term DT1", an aromatic benzene compound used in the factory's cooling system. Specifically, the pollutants from the leak were diphenyl oxide and biphenyl. Breathing in these chemicals can cause nausea and respiratory problems. Responding to the threat, the PCD warned citizens living near the factory to stay at home and wear face masks at all times. Many schools in the area also ordered students to stay home.
Despite the leak being contained within 10 minutes, what is noteworthy is that in the early stages, there was no clear or detailed information about which chemicals had escaped. Yes, the term "hot oil" was bandied about, but few people had any idea what this actually meant. Likewise, no precise scientific indication was given as to how far these chemicals could spread.
It must have been a terrifying experience for those living in the area who awoke to hear distressing warnings that they may have been exposed to certain "chemicals" of an unidentified nature.
Unfortunately, this is often how things go in Thailand. Many Thai people live in or near areas where toxic cocktails of chemicals and industrial pollutants are rife, without knowing much about them.
Many of us may remember the Ming Dih Chemical incident in July 2021. Again, it was a plastic factory that was the source of the pollution. Only it was not a chemical leak, but rather an explosion that shook a nearby village, followed by a blaze that claimed the life of a volunteer firefighter.
The explosion and fire at the Ming Dih factory resulted in the release of hazardous styrene gas into the area. Despite the scale of the damage being far greater than the Indorama case, the way in which the information was released in such a tardy and patchy manner was similar.
It took officials a long time to establish which chemicals were being released, and longer still for the company to report the exact quantity that had been stored in the factory.
This lack of information impedes agencies from responding quickly and efficiently. Moreover, the public -- clueless as to the details of the accident -- has no way to estimate the risk or respond accordingly.
Another case occurred this January -- an oil spill in the Gulf of Thailand. The polluting source was a single-point mooring of Star Petroleum Refining Company (SPRC), in which Chevron is a major investor. For many months, and arguably to this day, the amount of oil spilt into the ocean remains unclear.
According to three environmental NGOs -- the ENLAWTHAI Foundation, Ecological Alert and Recovery–Thailand (EARTH), and Greenpeace Thailand -- Thais live with the constant risk of pollution, worsened by their lack of access to knowledge about its myriad sources.
In a joint press statement issued on the day of the Indorama leak, the three NGOs -- aside from calling for investigations, corporate accountability, transparency, legal action and health monitoring -- urged government agencies to support a citizen's draft of the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register Law, also known as the PRTR law.
The draft law mandates that the sources of pollutants, including factories, must report information about the number of pollutants they release into or transport through the environment to the relevant government agencies. The government is then tasked with collecting and releasing this information to the public in a way that is accessible and transparent.
The benefits of the PRTR law are numerous. It guarantees citizens access to information on which pollutants are in their vicinity. This allows them to better prepare for industrial accidents. Likewise, government agencies and civil society would be able to know immediately which pollutants were released by what factory, making monitoring, tracking and mitigation much easier.
Had this system been in place already, there would have been far less confusion over what chemicals were likely in the air following the leak at Indorama's plant. Imagine if firefighting units could immediately access the full report of chemicals that Ming Dih released each year, and were then able to estimate which methods should be used when responding to industrial accidents involving styrene. Would this not have made fighting the fire easier and safer?
Private companies also stand to benefit from this law. A database on the quantity of pollution they release would help them reduce their emissions in the long run. It could also help companies like Indorama, Ming Dih and SPRC identify weaknesses and risks, and prevent leakages or other such accidents.
Above all, the law will lead to a database shared by the government, private companies and civil society, making cooperation in environmental and health monitoring far more effective. In the long run, this could reduce pollution on a national level.
This law is not new, by the way. Most OECD nations have already implemented it. The European Union has a PRTR system that can be applied to its member-states unless they have their own version (such as Japan and the US).
The PRTR systems have been a boon to the citizens of many of these countries. In the Czech Republic, for instance, an NGO called the Arnika Association has been able to rank the top polluters of specific chemicals in their country each year, thus pressuring firms to improve their environmental performances.
In Thailand, on the other hand, the citizens' draft of the PRTR law has been rejected by the state a few times. This year, close to the anniversary of the Ming Dih explosion, the draft has been submitted once more and is now open for signatures (thaiprtr.com). If it attracts 10,000 signatures, it can be sent to parliament.
It is high time for Thailand to get its own PRTR law. And it is you, the general public, who can best voice the necessary support for this, by helping to keep it in the spotlight and adding your signature.
Punyathorn Jeungsmarn, is a campaigner with Ecological Alert and Recovery – Thailand (EARTH).