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287th Meeting - Tuesday, April 10th 2007

 It’s not just Haze: The effects of air pollution in Chiang Mai

A talk and presentation by
Dr. Duongchan Apaavaatjrut Charoenmuang


Present: Masanao Umebayashi, Hugh and Pik Leong, Uwe Konrad, Tom Drumin, Peter Oberender, Louis Gabaude, Richard Nelson-Jones, Thomas Ohlson, Renee Vines, Keiko and Carl Samuels, Ken Kampe, Carol Grodzins, Peter Kurt Hansen, Lindy Santitharangkul, Bodil Blokker, Maeline Le Lay, John Cadet, Ricky Ward, David Blair Brown, Patrick McGowan, Michael Tucksen, Pia Wunna, Oliver Hargreave, Ron Renard, Adrian Pieper, Jonathan and Beryl McKeown, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Tony and Siripan Kidd, Tom Fawthrop, David Steane. An audience of 35.  


The Minutes of Dr. Duongchan’s talk are comprised of her newspaper article and your Convenor’s recollections of an extremely informative and well delivered presentation.

The smoggy, grayish haze that has spread over Chiang Mai and many other provinces of northern Thailand and its neighboring countries is viewed differently by different groups of people in the community.  Academics who have conducted research related to air pollution are concerned about the health impact from the amount of PM10 (particulate matter smaller than 10 microns – a micron is approximately 1/60th the size of the diameter of a human hair) that exceed 2 to 3 times the allowable amount of 120 micrograms per cubic metre in 24 hours.   The standard level, set by the Pollution Control Department, does not mean a “safe” level but the level that a human body can endure. (120 micrograms per cubic metre is the standard in Thailand, the standard set by the European Union is 50.) Therefore, if the amount of PM10s exceeds the allowable amount, it becomes a health hazard that can be life threatening to those who already have chronic symptoms of respiratory problems and heart disease.  The elderly whose bodies are frail and small children are most at risk and may develop acute illnesses.

For many business people the haze problem is damaging their income, which has risen by many hundred percents during the 3 months of the Royal Flora Expo, and they want to maintain that income level.  And because this haze has lingered on for so many weeks there are members of the general public who have become depressed and subject to higher levels of stress. Even though the Chiang Mai Department of Public Health and Chiang Mai University have issued warnings and guidelines about what to do and what not do when the PM10 level is high, many people still continue to exercise outdoor. Among those who regularly exercise outdoors are many supposedly ‘knowledgeable’ academics who it would seem, judging by their unwillingness to modify their behaviour, suffer from a serious misperception of the haze problem.         

The haze has forced government officials and local governments to work harder at damage control. They see the haze problem not primarily as a health hazard but as a threat to the tourism industry. Many hotels, spas and related business have already lost 30-100% of their customers, which will damage the city’s economy. The official’s determination to protect tourist businesses is illustrated by their press releases which say that Chiang Mai air is clean, when in fact it is still polluted far above an acceptable level.  In addition, the continued haze problem could cost these officials career advancement, which is why they were very quick to declare their province as no longer in a state of emergency.

Some local residents think it’s just the same haze that we confront every year, which after the first rain will go away.  Why worry?  Why should they stop burning leaves and garbage, or burning their fields; which has been practiced by their ancestors since time immemorial?  Some well-known academics get very angry, saying that the poor are always blamed for leading their traditional way of life, and point the finger at the rich who use cars, and live and work in an air-conditioned environment.

In fact all pollution sources, including cigarette smoking, contribute to the critical haze problem we are now faced with. Open burning, traffic fumes, barbeques, and other common causes of air pollution occur every day; the fires on the mountains, however, are seasonal.  I do not call them forest fires because sometimes it can be slash and burn and/or garbage burning.  Unfortunately, the hill tribes and local people have been the scapegoats for the burning on highland areas.  Gathering Hed-top mushrooms, a very lucrative pursuit, has been quoted as the motivation for burning, but these mushrooms only grow up to 500 MSL. The fires that we can see on the mountains are above the altitude that this mushroom can grow.  In addition, farmers will only burn their fields just before the rains come in late April and early May.  Haze problems in late February and March are the product of groups whose intentions are unknown.

The haze is not a naturally occurring phenomenon like mist of fog, but a man- made disaster that poses a serious threat to a crucial element of our life support system. Air is a necessity for the survival of human, animals and plants.  We can fast for weeks, we can stop drinking for many days, but we cannot stop breathing. Our breathing is so automatic that we are not consciously aware of breathing in and out; as a result, we pay scant attention to our breathing, and, usually, even less to the quality of the air we inspire.  Although breathing clean, smoke free air is basic human right, it has not yet been put on the agenda of human rights activists. 

The present haze problem has had a measurable detrimental effect on people’s health. A report from the Ministry of Health, released by the Northern Thailand Haze Prevention Center, shows that from March 16th – 25th 2007 the health of 10,654 people in Chiang Mai was affected by the haze problem.  The number of deaths due to the haze is still unknown.  

If it is prolonged, the haze will not only affect our health and livelihoods, but also the security of our food supply. The haze has an adverse effect on the photosynthesis of plants and trees. Dr. Wanarak Wongsaikaew, Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Chiang Mai University, discovered that a kind of lichen that can normally withstand urban air, commonly used as a bio-indicator in England, bleaches at its edge in many areas in the Chiang Mai-Lamphun valley. This bleaching means they are dying.  This is only one bio-indicator; there are many more if we look around. A useful ‘bio-indicator’ for people in Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep. If you can see the mountain then the air is relatively clear. If you can’t see it then it’s a bad air day.

Air pollution in the north of Thailand is both a national and an international problem. Dr. Duongchan presented satellite heat images which showed as many hot spots were fires are burning in neighbouring countries as there are in Thailand. But, as Dr. Duongchan pointed out, that does not mean that we have to wait for our neighbours to clean up their act before we start to do something. There are many things that people can do to improve the quality of their air:

1.      Stop burning garbage - especially plastic and Styrofoam, wood, leaves and grass. When burnt all of these will produce carbon smoke, PM10 dust particles, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), and Carbon Monoxide. None of which will do you any good when breathed into your body. A significant proportion of your garbage – glass, plastic bottles, paper, cans, etc. can be recycled, and wood, leaves and grass can be composted.

2.      Reduce or eliminate the number of plastic bags you use by taking your own cloth shopping bag or a shopping basket to the supermarket.    

3.      If you know they use Styrofoam containers and plastic bags, take your own containers when you go out to the restaurant or food stall to buy a takeaway meal or drink.   

4.      Suggest that the municipality or the Or-Bor-Tor (Tambon Administrative Organization) stop using car tyres as the fuel for cremating bodies. The black smoke you see billowing from the crematorium chimney is not coming from the body. (Convenor’s note: Sky Burials and donating your body to Chiang Mai Zoo to feed the big cats are both 100% environmentally friendly alternatives.) 

5.      Use your car less – car pool or use public transport to get to work.

6.      Do not leave the engine running to keep the air-conditioning going when you are parked.

7.      Try walking and using a bicycle for short trips

8.      Avoid burning charcoal on the Bar-B-Q.  After open burning, commercial Bar-B-Qs in front of restaurants and on the street are, by number, the second largest source of air pollution in cities and towns. There is now available a smokeless barbeques grill that will not only eliminate the air pollution but also can increase income from the sale of the collected waste products to bio diesel producers.

9.      Cover construction sites to reduce the spread of dust particles. Tall building can be clad in plastic sheeting and the ground around them and the adjacent roads can be watered to damp down the dust. A prime example of this is the underpass under construction at the Kuang Singha junction on the Super Highway. This site has been under construction for more than two years and in that time the construction company has done nothing to damp down the dust generating from it.

10.  Trees absorb harmful carbon monoxide and other toxins and give out oxygen. Stop cutting them down and plant more of them.  

11.  Prohibit the construction of more high-rise buildings in the Chiang Mai-Lamphun valley. Wishful thinking but you should be aware that the high-rise buildings are one of the reasons why the pollution problem is worsening. (Dr. Duongchan showed slides that illustrated how the tall buildings in the Chiang Mai valley cause turbulence in the air, causing the dust particles to circulate and build up in the valley instead of being dispersed on the wind, i.e. blown out of the valley.) Something for city planners to consider the next time they approve another condo block. The existing high-rise buildings should be knocked down after 50 years, or less, of use.

12.  Use your commonsense. There are many more ways than these to reduce air pollution. 

What can local government do? A lot. What is local government doing? Not much. Why? The difficulty in persuading the local authorities to do something about air pollution in Chiang Mai is because it is a seasonal problem, i.e. when the rains come the fog, that is the carbon smoke that you can see, disappears, and then it is a case of “Problem? What problem?” Flooding is also seasonal but the big difference is that water inundating houses is an immediate problem and the damage can be directly observed. High levels of PM10 dust particles are invisible and the effect on health is less immediate and less directly observable. The only chance we have that the local government will take any steps to address the air pollution problem is that enough of the local business people in the tourism industry – hotels, spas, shops, etc. will see their profits sufficiently hard hit by the drop in tourist numbers, which is already starting to happen, that they will put pressure on their friends in high places to do something to save them from financial ruin. It won’t be a concern for the health of the our children and the population as a whole but for the health of the bank accounts of a few that will spur official activity. The difficulty the local council has in addressing this problem is that unlike flooding, which the local government can be seen to be doing something positive about by dredging the Ping, the only action they can take to reduce air pollution is to enforce the existing laws – a negative action which will make them unpopular with a significant percentage of the local population. Are they really going to instruct the police to fine every person they catch standing beside a pile of burning leaves, or every hotel with black smoke billowing out of its chimney? And what about the local farmers? If they cannot offer the rice farmer a commercially viable alternative to burning off stubble, then he is going to continue to break the law and burn. Then what are the local authorities going to do? Arrest the farmer and put him in prison for 7 years, and be seen as the direct cause of his wife and family suffering without their breadwinner? Try and fine him Baht 14,000 when he is already probably up to his neck in debt and barely making enough to keep his family at subsistence level? If the local council take that route they are on a hiding to nothing. 

The only way that the problem of air pollution is going to be at least reduced in Chiang Mai is to educate the public, and, as suggested by some members of the audience, eventually make burning an anti-social activity, like urinating or defecating in the streets. Education combined with an enhanced sense of community civic pride would make it socially unacceptable to pollute the environment, and even ostracize those guilty of committing such an offence. And the local government can do something positive to enhance civic pride, firstly by setting an example by putting their own house in order, and then providing, amongst other things, efficient garbage collection, street cleaning, and free plants, flowers and trees.

If we are going to protect the environment, our health and the health of our children then we must be fully aware of the threat that air pollution poses, and of the power that we have to ensure that Chiang Mai once more becomes a clean and healthy place, a better place to live.           


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