By PRATCH RUJIVANAROM
Yesterday, as Thais of Chinese descent marked the occasion, The Nation used a portable air-quality monitor to examine the impact of celebrations in Samut Sakhon’s Krathum Baen district. Findings revealed that smoke from incense, firecrackers and joss paper was raising air pollution to health-damaging levels.
Every Chinese New Year, the town of Krathum Baen crackles with the sound of fireworks as almost every household lights candles, incense and joss papers to worship ancestors and Chinese gods. A public alert over the smog crisis did nothing to dampen celebrations this year.
Mobile readings showed the widespread revelry did not exacerbate air pollution outdoors, thanks to a strong southerly wind.
However, measurements inside homes where candles and incense had been lit showed that PM2.5 particles had risen to a hazardous level of between 200 and 450 micrograms per cubic metre.
Meanwhile, outdoor air quality near Chinese shrines was also severely unhealthy, with the PM2.5 readings of around 80 to 300 micrograms/metre recorded.
The air quality significantly worsened when the wind carried the acrid and eye-watering smoke of firecrackers and joss papers to the neighbouring residential area, where the PM2.5 reading jumped to as high as 700 micrograms.
Somnuck Jongmeewasin, an environment expert at Silpakorn University, pointed out that burning joss paper emits very high levels of PM2.5 – but worse, the smoke and ash also contain poisonous heavy metals such as lead, chromium, nickel and manganese.
“The most commonly used joss papers for traditional Chinese rituals are made of low-quality paper colour painted with lead, because it is the cheapest option. But this releases the heaviest pollution when burnt,” Somnuck said.
“Smoke and PM2.5-laden fly ash from burning joss paper contain serious level of lead, which are extremely poisonous to both human health and the environment.
“Prolonged exposure to this kind of pollution can result in lung cancer, anaemia, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease and retarded brain development in children.”
Somnuck stressed that both fly ash and heavy ash from joss paper are considered hazardous waste and must be disposed of at specialist industrial waste-management plants.
He proposed that leftover joss papers be collected by local authorities to be burnt in the closed-system incinerators, so the ash can be properly treated, as many developed countries do.
Chinese New Year yesterday also saw the National Environment Committee hold a special meeting on measures for combating PM2.5 in the medium and long term.
Among outcomes was a decision to upgrade Thailand’s daily safe limit of PM2.5 from 50 to 37.5 micrograms/metre, to encourage better air quality standards.
However Thailand director for Greenpeace Tara Buakamsri replied that decisive moves to control air pollution emissions were still lacking, while in reality there was no new PM2.5 safe standard, just revised action plans that still relied upon the old safe standard.