EARTH Thailand

Cloud over Thailand

Bangkok Post 30 January 2018 | EDITORIAL

The cool season is usually the worst time of the year in Thailand in terms of pollution, and recent years suggest the situation is once again getting out of control. Last week, Bangkok saw the highest levels of dangerously unhealthy air quality since the bad old days of leaded gasoline and uncontrolled wood-cooking fires. Nowadays the literally sickening pollution in the capital comes from vehicle emissions.

The capital's air quality index (AQI) soared above 150 last week. The AQI is a composite measurement of many pollutants. Anything over 100 translates as stay-inside risky. Babies should not be taken outside. People should not eat on the streets. Even cycling can be dangerous to one's health.

According to caution notices issues by the Pollution Control Department (PCD), an AQI reading of 150 means "everyone feels the effects". Coughing and headaches are common. Hospitalisation is not unusual for those with asthma, bronchitis or other respiratory ailments. The bad news is that the air quality is likely to worsen from mid-to-late February.

Last week's Bangkok reading, at or above 150 on several days, represented peak levels for the dry season. A breakdown of the most horrendous readings, on Tuesday and Thursday, shows the following: The main pollutant was "particulate matter" -- very fine and often sooty dust particles in the air that can easily worm their way deep into the lungs. That was what caused the high readings. The second biggest offender was carbon monoxide.

Both of these contaminants come almost exclusively from a single source: vehicles. Thaloengsak Phetsuwan, the PCD's director of the Bureau of Air Quality and Noise Management, said the chief culprit is PM2.5, which measure 2.5 micrometres in diameter, or less. A micrometre equals 1/1,000th of a centimetre -- or roughly 50 times thinner than a human hair. Bangkok residents constantly breathe this pollution. When it is especially thick, like last week, one can easily see it shrouding the city.

This reflects a lack of will by recent governments to remedy the situation, including the military regime.

Take a short trip on a city street and you can see numerous vehicles with thick black fumes billowing out of their exhausts. They obviously should have been removed from the roads for repairs or junking. But that is just the start of the problem. By definition, vehicles emit pollutants that cannot be seen. In addition to the fine particulates, every car or truck exhaust pours out carbon monoxide and other invisible gases.

It is time for the Department of Land Transport (DLT) and other related bureaucracies to reboot their involvement and tackle this obvious health hazard. The DLT has a duty to inspect vehicles every time a licence is renewed. The goal is to find and ban every one that fails the licence-renewal test. But inspections have become lax and rushed. The DLT must reconsider its responsibility and re-dedicate staff to the task. Up-to-date equipment must also be made available.

Put simply: Air pollution is bad news. It affects everyone's quality of life and freedom to work, eat, play and travel outdoors without fear of harming their health. It is a huge drag on the economy. Tourists will actually stay away from cities with high AQI readings. With too many such readings, they will bypass the country.

Mr Thaloengsak's simple and straightforward prediction should bring a strong reaction. Heavier pollution next month is probably certain in the North from field burning, in the South from Indonesia. Now, experts predict the same for Bangkok, mostly because of polluting vehicles. This should be treated by the government as a health emergency.