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250th Meeting - Tuesday, July 6th 2004

“The Impact of Air Quality on Chiang Mai Residents”

A talk and presentation by Dr. Duangchan Charoenmuang


Present: Hans and Sangdao Bänziger, Mark Bleadon, Rosemary Bolivar, Manus Brinkman, Alex Brodard, Steve Brooks, John Cadet, Jim Campion, Etienne Daniels, Billy Doerner, Ron Emmons, Erica Foschiati, Louis Gabaude, Po Garden, Annelie Hendriks, Reinhard Hohler, Mike Long, Bernie and Petep McKenzie-Brown, Niels Mulder, Thomas Ohlson, Nienke Parma, Adrian Pieper, David Steane, Ricky Ward. 
An audience of 26. 

Dr. Duangchan writes “Chiang Mai air quality has been worse than you may have thought. The critical period is in dry season. At this time the air contains an increased amount of fine particulate matter (PM10), much more than the allowable amount. Statistics show that there are more people suffering from respiratory problem. More people (non smoker) die of lung cancer in Chiang Mai. There is a need to identify the causes of pollution, and take steps to initiate remedial action. We think that the sooner everyone knows this information the better. We are campaigning for better air quality for a better quality of life in Chiang Mai.

I am a researcher at the Social Research Institute (SRI), Chiang Mai University, also the secretary general of the Urban Development Institute Foundation (UDIF). I got a B. Arch. with Honours from Chulalongkorn University, Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, sponsored by the Fulbright Scholarship, and Ph.D. in Urban Conservation from the University of Tokyo, sponsored by the JSPS Ronpaku Scholarship. I worked as city planner at the Department of City Planning, Ministry of Interior in Bangkok for 9 years, then worked as a city planner at the City of Chicago for 3 years. Since returning to Chiang Mai I have been active in urban issues.”

Due to a hectic schedule of meetings in various locations in the provunce, Dr. Duangchan was unable to provide us with her own summary of her talk. These minutes, which are representative of the content of the talk, are based on an article By Pim Kemasingki that appeared in Chiang Mai Citylife Magazine in March 2004

Solution to Pollution?

When was the last time that you saw Wat Phra That Doi Suthep’s glittering pagoda? Was it days, weeks or even months ago? We all know that the Suthep-Pui mountains are enveloped by a shroud of haze for a number of months every year. The missionaries who arrived in Chiang Mai over one hundred years ago remarked upon it. So has anything changed in the last century? Is this just a natural phenomenon because of all the forest fires or should we be concerned for our own health?

“Have you ever heard of the boiled frog syndrome?” asked Duangchan Charoenmuang of the Urban Development Institute Foundation, who has spent a number of years studying air particles and levels of air pollution in Chiang Mai. “If you put a frog into a bowl of boiling water it will leap out at the first opportunity, however, if you place the same frog in tepid water and slowly heat up the bowl, the frog will boil to death, and not notice the increase in water temperature at all. This is what is happening here in Chiang Mai; our air is progressively becoming dangerous and we are happily stewing in it,” she alarmingly informed a meeting attended by Vice Governor Prinya Panthong, a representative of the Lord Mayor, the head of the Chiang Mai Transport Department as well as a collection of other governmental officials at the provincial hall in February. “Because of the gradual increase in air pollution, there is no quick significant change to alarm the public. A 2.5 micron particulate matter (PM) is a type of air pollution. One micron is one thousandth of a millimetre, so we are talking about minute particles which are deadly when infiltrating the finest tissues of our lungs. The accepted average of PM 2.5 is 65 micrograms per cubic metre in a 24 hour period and 15 for an annual average, however, Chiang Mai’s air in the dry months frequently exceeds what is laid down by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as an acceptable level, several fold. In 1994, 33% of those living in Chiang Mai had respiratory problems; in 1999 the figure was 45%. This is a significant increase.”

Duangchan and fellow researchers were appealing to the local authorities to take immediate and swift action to combat this problem. Her solutions are that all burning within the city and other towns in Chiang Mai Province be immediately banned. That one day a week, a ‘clean air’ day is promoted, that a public transportation system be implemented immediately so that fewer vehicles are on the road and that a major campaign is launched to create public awareness.

“You have sent a chill down my spine,” said Vice Governor Prinya to Duangchan. “Everyone talks about Chiang Mai being a hub for this and a hub for that, but it looks as if we can’t even sort out the problem of our most common denominator – air. The angels will soon be finding a new home as our skies are too polluted for them. So what can we do? Ask villagers to make compost? It costs time and money, which most villagers can’t afford. Shall we tell people to stop eating grilled products? It would be like banning sticky rice. The prime minister talks about aerobics and breathing in and out. I hardly dare breathe anymore. But what can we do? Our city is at a disadvantage as it sits in a stagnant basin, like a wok. Bangkok and Songkla are fortunate to have the sea breeze which wafts away their pollution. Chiang Mai Province has a population of 1.6 million people and there are already 900,000 cars and 700,000 motorbikes on the roads. Let’s all do our best to solve this problem.”

However, the meeting ended with no clear action plan and Duangchan felt that she had been, once more, ignored by the local authorities.

“They don’t want to make a real effort,” she said to Citylife. “They are so afraid that it would scare away their tourists. I heard that a tourist from Alaska booked a ten day holiday in Chiang Mai, left after two days and sent a letter saying that Chiang Mai didn’t live up to what the brochures claimed. He was talking specifically about air pollution. Surely it’s an important issue for us all.”

Duangchan fears that what effort is being made is too little and too late. “The authorities are not public minded,” she added. “They blindly follow orders, and frankly they are just not clever enough to combat such a vast problem. I also fear that the people are too complaisant. The public need to speak up and be made aware of these issues.”

City Clerk Ken Santitham, PhD. and the one staff in the municipality whose direct responsibility is the environment, Rongrong Duriyapunt, disagree. “I think that the academics exaggerate,” said Ken. “Our air problems are not that severe. Our measurements show that there are peak times when it is high, but on average it’s not that far above the accepted norm. We have been working for years now on the US-supported Maryland Project and we have created a master plan for Chiang Mai’s air problems,” said Ken. “We have fined people for burning their garbage, we have published pamphlets and raised public awareness, we have planted trees so that Chiang Mai has become green, our roads are paved so that dust particles are at a minimum and most importantly we are trying our best to sort out a public transportation system. As you well know, the songteaw association is proving to be very unreasonable and difficult to deal with. I think that our record has been impressive. A number of on-the-job training programs have been implemented, a number of our staff have visited the United States, including the Lord Mayor - this shows commitment. Also a detailed emission inventory of Chiang Mai’s sources of air pollution was developed which will serve as a building block for scientific research and an ongoing management plan.”

Rongrong informed us that the municipal budget for the environment was 400,000 baht per year and that this budget also paid for her salary. “This is why we aren’t as effective as we could be,” she said. “If not for the help of the US government we would have achieved far less. I am trying my best to get a bigger environmental budget next year and in the meanwhile there is not that much that I can do.”

Eric Reubin, US Consul General agrees. “The academics are correct in that there has been no real effort in this matter until recently, and the authorities are certainly complicit,” said Reubin, who has been coordinating between the municipality and the Maryland Department of the Environment, which produced the 2002 Air Quality Management Plan, and lately with Portland City, which took over the project when the state of Maryland had a change in administration. “However, I think that accusations can sometimes be overly harsh. Ten to fifteen years ago, I have heard, the word environment didn’t even figure in a normal vocabulary in Chiang Mai’s politics. Today, every time that there is a plan or a project, the word environment pops up. The Doi Suthep cable car project was shelved because of the environmental impact, the Night Safari and Doi Luang cable car projects both have to be transparent on their environmental impact and tourists today demand that the environment is protected, so business people have got to take that into consideration. In the1980s everyone thought that tourists wanted to stay in high-rise condos, we now know that they don’t – this is all part of a broader shift in attitude. I also empathise with Lord Mayor Boonlert in that the central government has not given the power and funding to the municipality in order to effectively combat this problem, so the Mayor has had to be creative. For instance there is much grumbling about the dredging of the Ping. People think that the river is being dredged to make way for traffic. That is very far from the truth, because what traffic is there really apart from a few tourist boats? The truth is that years and years of toxic sediment has been festering in the river bottom. This needs to be removed to both increase the flow of the river as well as to clean it of toxic elements. These are just some of the initiatives of the municipality. I do believe that they are committed to fight the air pollution battle.”

Po Garden, researcher with the Unit for Social and Environmental Research, sees that there is a very real problem. “PM 2.5 is a real concern for Chiang Mai,” said Po, “We first learnt about the issue from a paper by Dr. Usanee Vinitketkumnuen last year. We have just received equipment to measure it. We ran a test last week at our office, nothing comprehensive, but a 24 hours average from on top of my desk was double the EPA standard.

“PM 2.5 is the abbreviation for Particulate Matter with a diameter smaller than two and a half microns. Human hair typically has a diameter of 40-120 microns, a full stop at the end of a sentence, probably about 400 microns, so a 2.5 is just minute and can penetrate and accumulate deep into the lung tissue. The effects of breathing air with a high PM 2.5 concentration can include premature death, increased respiratory symptoms and disease, chronic bronchitis, and decrease lung function particularly in children and individuals with asthma. A poll of 500 residents of Chiang Mai carried out by professor Lamduan Srisakd in 2002 showed that over 70 % of them thought that we had clean air in Chiang Mai. The public perception must be changed. Burning is so popular in Chiang Mai, that most of us have neighbours who do it too. Although there may not be a clearly enforced ordinance about burning yard waste, a few laws of physics do hold good. “One is that what goes up must come down and the other is that matter does not get created or destroyed. A pile of leaves turns into smoke and ash and not a gram of it goes missing. It doesn’t really float away. A portion of it will turn into fine particles and that is what we breathe in Chiang Mai during the dry months. Smoke and particulates that we breathe in town probably also come from the seasonal burning of crop residues and vacant land around the city. Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains and the air frequently gets trapped in the valley.

“So what can we do? Avoid burning anything particularly after Valentine’s Day until the end of May. Compost yard waste – rotting is a natural process and decay is inevitable – it works for everyone. Pile the waste up and water it like a plant and if you want to speed up the process sprinkle on some urea fertiliser and the microscopic growies will eat it all up. It is not as quick as fire, but the nutrients will linger longer in your soil and above all we will all breathe a little easier. Another thing to do would be to avoid major road and other construction activities towards the end of the dry season as this surely contributes to the dust problems. Chiang Mai residents and businesses need to think about health and money when it comes to PM 2.5 and traffic congestion. If conditions get much worse Chiang Mai will get a reputation that will keep tourists away.”

I asked Duangchan what she would do if she had the authority to solve Chiang Mai’s air pollution problems. “I could fix it in four years,” she said. “I would tell people how serious the issue was and get the public involved in the campaign. I would set yearly targets for reduction and meet them. I would solve the current garbage problem effectively and make recycling compulsory. There is a city in Japan which has 8 separate types of garbage to be separated, Phitsanulok has a very effective sorting campaign - surely we can do it too. The traffic issue must also be tackled and I would get the big industries to be responsible for their waste. These efforts alone would clean up our air in a matter of a few years. The people must stand up and start claiming our city and feel as though we own it.”

A serious issue indeed. But if we all work together and be aware of the problem, surely Chiang Mai can, once again, have clean air.