If you have ever visited Thailand, especially during the dry season from January to April, you may have noticed a thick haze of smog covering the cities and countryside.

This is not only an unpleasant sight, but also a serious health hazard for millions of people who live and breathe in this polluted air.

According to IQAir, a Swiss company that monitors air quality around the world, Thailand ranked 57th out of 131 countries for its average annual PM2.5 concentration in 2022. PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, causing various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as cancer and premature death.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the annual average PM2.5 level should not exceed 10 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), but Thailand’s average was 64 μg/m3 in 2022, more than six times higher than the WHO guideline.

Air pollution also affects tourism, agriculture, biodiversity, and climate change. For example, poor visibility due to haze can deter tourists from visiting scenic attractions; reduced sunlight due to smog can lower crop yields; acid rain due to SO2 can damage plants and soil; and greenhouse gases due to CO2 can contribute to global warming.

Major contributors to poor air quality in Thailand

Agriculture and burning of crop residues

Thailand is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of rice, sugar cane, rubber, and other crops. However, many farmers still practice open burning of crop residues and forest land to clear fields and prepare for planting. This practice not only destroys valuable natural resources but also creates huge amounts of smoke and haze that can travel long distances and affect neighboring regions and countries. According to a report by the World Bank, agriculture accounts for about 18% of PM2.5 emissions in Thailand.

Seasonal factors from November to April

The air quality in Thailand also varies depending on the season and weather conditions. The dry season, which lasts from November to April, is usually the worst time for air pollution, especially in northern Thailand. This is because of the combination of low rainfall, low wind speed, high humidity, and temperature inversion that traps pollutants near the ground level.

Moreover, this is also the peak season for agricultural burning and forest fires in northern Thailand and neighboring countries such as Myanmar and Laos, creating a thick layer of smog that covers the region. Chiang Mai, one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern Thailand, has suffered from severe air pollution in recent years, reaching hazardous levels of AQI (air quality index) above 300 on some days.

Power generation from coal

Coal-fired power plants are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), mercury and PM2.5. According to a report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia, coal power plants in Thailand emitted about 12 million tons of CO2 and 77,000 tons of PM2.5 in 2019, causing an estimated 1,550 premature deaths and 31,000 asthma cases.

Manufacturing, refining and mining industries

These sectors also produce large amounts of emissions and waste that pollute the air, water and soil. For example, a petrochemical complex in Map Ta Phut Industrial Estate in Rayong province has been accused of causing severe environmental and health problems for nearby residents, who have reported higher rates of cancer, birth defects and respiratory diseases. The complex emits more than 100 types of hazardous substances, including benzene, a known carcinogen.

Vehicle emissions

Thailand has a high number of motor vehicles on the road, especially motorcycles and old diesel trucks and buses that emit black smoke. According to the Pollution Control Department (PCD), transport accounts for about 52% of the total PM2.5 emissions in Bangkok. The PCD also found that more than 60% of the vehicles inspected in Bangkok failed to meet the emission standards in 2019.

Waste burning

Another common practice that contributes to air pollution in Thailand is burning agricultural waste, such as rice straw and corn stalks, after harvesting. This is done to clear the land for the next crop cycle or to get rid of unwanted waste. However, this also releases large amounts of smoke and PM2.5 into the air, affecting not only the local areas but also neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. According to NASA satellite data, there were more than 20,000 fire hotspots detected in Thailand in March 2020.

Impacts on human health

Air pollution in Thailand has significant impacts on human health, the economy, and the environment. According to a report by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and IQAir in 2020, air pollution caused an estimated 37,800 premature deaths and 2.4 billion USD in economic losses in Thailand in 2018.

Increased morbidity and mortality

Air pollution can cause or worsen various diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart attack, stroke and cancer. According to a study by Harvard University and King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL), air pollution caused about 49,000 premature deaths in Thailand in 2018, costing about $95 billion or 6.6% of GDP.

Reduced tourism revenue: Air pollution can also deter tourists from visiting Thailand or staying longer, especially during the peak season when the air quality is worst. This can affect the tourism industry, which accounts for about 20% of GDP and employs about 15% of the workforce. According to a survey by Kasikorn Research Center (KRC), about 43% of foreign tourists said they would cancel or postpone their trips to Thailand if the air quality was bad.

How to protect yourself from air pollution in Thailand

While it may not be possible to avoid air pollution completely in Thailand, there are some steps you can take to reduce your exposure and protect your health:

Check the air quality index (AQI) regularly

You can use websites or apps such as IQAir or AirVisual to monitor the real-time AQI and PM2.5 levels in different locations in Thailand. The AQI is a scale that ranges from 0 to 500 and indicates how healthy or unhealthy the air is based on various pollutants. The higher the AQI, the more harmful the air is for your health. The US EPA uses six color-coded categories to describe the AQI levels: green (good), yellow (moderate), orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups), red (unhealthy), purple (very unhealthy), and maroon (hazardous). You can use these categories as a guide to plan your outdoor activities accordingly.

The higher the AQI, the more harmful the air is for your health
The higher the AQI, the more harmful the air is for your health

Wear a face mask

When the AQI is high or you are in a polluted area, such as near busy roads or industrial zones, you should wear a face mask that can filter out PM2.5 particles. Not all masks are effective against PM2.5, so you should look for masks that have an N95 or N99 rating or equivalent. These masks can filter out at least 95% or 99% of PM2.5 particles respectively. You should also make sure that the mask fits well on your face and covers your nose and mouth properly.

About the author

Bangkok Correspondent at Siam News Network

Bangkok Correspondent for Siam News Network. Editor at Thailand Business News

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