Thursday, August 22, 2019

Lackadaisical approach in tackling pollution unacceptable 

Jan 15. 2019
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By The Nation

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More intensive measures and greater seriousness required to deal with a problem that has become a threat to public health

The junta-backed government needs smarter ideas, more than just creating artificial rain or spraying water, while an unhealthy smog has blanketed the capital this week. The actions taken by some of the government agencies over the past few days might be a psychological balm to reassure the people that their government is indeed doing something about this crisis, but their half-measures will not help solve the problem for the long run.

Hopefully, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will not call for prayers to cleanse the capital’s polluted air like his recent claim that his prayer could save the South from tropical storm Pabuk that lashed the region recently. Tackling the air pollution problem requires a scientific, not whimsical, approach. 

This is not just a regular winter fog but a deadly cloud of fine dust particles and other air pollutants that could be detrimental to the health of the people. The PM2.5 dust particles are fine enough to be absorbed in the human bloodstream through the lungs. This could cause chronic diseases such as asthma, cancer, heart disease and stroke in the long term if there is an extended exposure to air pollution. 

The authorities have failed to realise the real danger of air pollution, unlike obvious threats to people such as disasters and diseases that can kill people instantly. The impacts to our health from PM2.5 are more subtle, and because the damage does not become obvious until it starts to take a toll, most people and the authorities are underestimating the deadly threat posed by PM2.5 to people’s health. 

Dust particles stirred by construction activity and heavy pollution caused by traffic have been trapped in Bangkok’s air since last week. It has blanketed many areas, reducing visibility for commuters and inducing breathing difficulties for a lot of people, most notably those who work in the open air such as construction workers and street vendors.

Nearly a week since the PM2.5 level in Bangkok rose significantly and forming a thick layer of smog over the city, the air in Bangkok early this week remained severely polluted. According to the PM2.5 air quality index measured by an international air-quality monitoring website, it was as high as 396 in the capital’s Bang Khen district on Monday. The site forecast that Bangkok would face harmful levels every morning for the rest of the week because there was very little wind. While government agencies in the capital, including the Pollution Control Department and Bangkok Metropolitan Authority, have introduced measures to cope with the problem, the public is demanding more effective methods to deal with the situation.

At a personal level, individuals are advised to stay indoors as much as possible, especially the elderly, children and people already ailing; they should regularly monitor the air pollution level; wear an N95 facemask while outside as it filters out most PM2.5 particulates; keep house doors and windows closed at all times; change their clothes and take a shower immediately on returning home from outside; and drink lots of water. 

However, the government needs to change gears in the measures it takes to tackle the problem. There are plenty of suggestions from scholars and environmentalists for state agencies to clean the air. First of all, Thailand should update safe-air standards in line with World Health Organisation’s recommendations and set the air pollution emission standard for power-plant chimneys.

Second, the government should look at the source of the pollution – mostly the transport sector. Promoting the use of clean and renewable fuel in the transportation sector should begin now. The government should also improve public transit with broader access and more extensive coverage in order to reduce the number of private vehicles on the road. The public should also be educated on measures for energy efficiency. People should also do their bit in helping the government by opting to walk or ride bicycles instead of always using vehicles, and they must also switch to electric vehicles.

Third, the government should disseminate information efficiently so as to enable people to prepare and cope with the situation. Easy access to a pollution monitoring system is necessary. Interestingly, people in Thailand are mostly relying on a China-based air quality monitoring website instead of Thai agencies, which seem to be more difficult to access.

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