By SAKAORAT SIRIMA
“People in Chiang Mai have been suffering from smog problems for about 10 years already.
With such long exposure to harmful particulates in air, the number of deaths has been rising every year,” Dr Chaicharn Pothirat, who also lectures at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Medicine, said. “Overall, people’s lives are being shortened.”
He decided to speak up to raise an alarm about air pollution, which has made Chiang Mai top the list of the world’s most polluted cities on several days this year.
When the amount of PM2.5 dust particles – particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns – soars in air, so does the risk of lung cancer, stroke, lung inflammation and heart disease.
“Many deaths are directly linked to PM2.5, so we should not ignore its risk any longer,” the renowned doctor warned.
He also lamented that though the smog crisis has persisted for a decade now, the authorities have failed to seriously address the issue.
“Not a single government has issued clear environment-related policies or prescribed tangible measures to deal with the dust problem,” he said.
Chiang Mai’s PM2.5 annual average stood at 18 micrograms (mcg) per cubic metre of air between 2016 and 2018, well above the 10mcg safety limit set by the World Health Organisation. However, Thailand’s Pollution Control Department (PCD) insists that the safety limit should be around 25mcg per cubic metre of air.
“For every 10mcg rise in PM2.5 particles, the number of deaths rise by 3.5 per cent every day,” Chaicharn noted.
Given that air pollution in Chiang Mai has been at critical point for several weeks now, the doctor reckoned that the number of deaths in the city would increase by about 1.5 per cent over the next seven days.
Chiang Mai is home to about 1.75 million people, including foreigners who have chosen to spend their retirement in this otherwise charming city.
Chaicharn said every time there is an increase in PM2.5 levels, the number of patients rushed to hospital emergency rooms rose substantially.
“There is also a noticeable increase in outpatients, who come to hospital with sinusitis, respiratory infections and tonsillitis,” he said, adding that these patients reflected the short-term impact of PM2.5.
“As for long-term impacts, they will be multiplied by 10,” he warned, noting that a high level of PM2.5 affects children’s development and can even boost autism cases.
“Among adults, there will be more cases of Alzheimer’s,” he added.
He is not the only doctor worried about the health impacts of PM2.5.
“Many doctors are wondering why the authorities have not addressed the PM2.5 problem seriously,” Chaicharn said.
Though agricultural fires have been identified as a major cause for air pollution, they continue taking place and the provincial authorities have no serious plans to address this problem, he said.
“Many farmers don’t care about the ban on outdoor fires, because the enforcement of law is lax,” he said. Also, he pointed out, local residents don’t understand the serious threat to health caused by PM2.5, which allows the authorities to get away with doing little to tackle the problem.
“But the threats to health are real. If we can cut the amount of PM2.5 in the air by 10mcg, Chiang Mai residents will be able to live four years longer on average,” he said, pointing out that the high level of pollution in the province has also cut tourism earnings by Bt10 billion.