Chiang Rai residents aired their resentment against the haze for the first time over years of suffering. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

Residents in the North sue PM and Environment Board for failing to tackle PM2.5 haze crisis

Chiang Rai residents, meanwhile, have come out for the first time in years of suffering to express their resentment against the haze and demand that state authorities do more to solve the problem

Some ten people from legal and medical fields and civil advocacy yesterday filed a petition to Chiang Mai Administrative Court, asking it to instruct concerned agencies including the Prime Minister to do more to tackle the PM2.5 haze problem.

The plaintiffs have won the backing of over 1,700 people in filing the petition and the support of leading legal organisations including EnLaw and Chiang Mai University’s Law Faculty. Their signatures were submitted along with the plaintiffs’ petition to show to the court the extent of public support in this petition, said Supaporn Malailoy, Manager at EnLaw, representing the plaintiffs’ joint legal team.

According to the group, they reasoned that since the beginning of this year, the Northern region has been experiencing a high concentration of PM2.5 and at some point, the concentration level had been beyond the hazardous level of over 100 micrograms per cu m for days or a week or so. Such phenomena have prompted over two million people to get sick already, they cited, stressing that this is a critical health crisis that resulted from the state’s negligence.

The group viewed that the PM, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the National Environment Board (NEB), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have not performed their duties effectively in addressing the problem and protecting people from the haze as they have failed to enforce their authority to a full extent. 

On behalf of the northern people who have been affected by the haze, they decided to file the petition to the court as such.

The PM, they said, has failed to enforce Article 9 under the Enhancement and Conservation of the National Environmental Quality Act, which gives full power to a prime minister to solve environmental crises. So, he has failed to address the problem timely and effectively as such, and the group wanted the court to instruct him to enforce Article 9 accordingly.

The NEB, the group cited, is in charge of implementing the national action plan on PM2.5. But since it has been implemented for four years, it has not shown any progress in tackling the haze and the problem has worsened. So, it wanted to court to instruct the NEB to fully implement the plan.

As for the SEC, the group said it oversees extraterritorial obligations that Thai business entities must adhere to while doing business in foreign countries, so it should come up with rules and regulations to regulate their businesses and supply chains, especially those that concern PM2.5 and transboundary haze.

Dr. Rungsrit Kanjanavanit, a cardiologist at the Faculty of Medicine of Chiang Mai University and one of the plaintiffs, said as a medical practitioner he has been calling for appropriate measures to address the problem for more than ten years while sharing knowledge on how this air pollution can affect people’s health both short and long terms as best he can. 

PM2.5, he said, could pose risks of mutation of EGFR genes (Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor) and lung cancer in people who are exposed to the haze with a concentration beyond the safety limit of 50 µg/m³ for a long period. This is not to mention other public health diseases that can follow including stroke and heart disease, he said. 

So, he wanted the government to pay serious attention to the issue and wanted to see some change in the government policies to address it.

“Rather than protecting businesses’ interests, this will help protect people and their lives,” said Dr. Rungsrit. “I’m ready to support facts and information regarding medical knowledge, and I hope that the court will listen and understand.”

Chatchawan Thongdeelert, Chairman of Chiang Mai Breathe Council, advocating for solutions to PM2.5 in the North, said residents in the North have put up with the haze for years to the point that they cannot stand it any more. The government must come up with both immediate and long-term measures to seriously address it rather than dealing with it like a routine job.

The court petition, he said, will send a signal to all political parties in this upcoming election that they must pay serious attention to the problem and come up with tangible solutions to tackle it.

“People have sent out their voices to show that they want to see change happen to guarantee that their children will have clean air to breathe. Living in a good environment is our fundamental right. The state has been negligent so we have just called out for something very basic and simple for us all,” said Mr. Chatchawan.

Chiang Rai’s resentment

In Chiang Rai, meanwhile, hundreds of people came out at King Meng Rai the Great Monument, the city’s landmark, to show their resentment against the PM2.5 haze in their province for the first time in years of suffering. Chiang Rai is among the hardest-hit provinces in the North as it is extensively shrouded by haze both from inside and outside the country.

People from various professions and fields including medical practitioners joined the peaceful gathering yesterday. According to the organisers, they would like to reflect on how people in Chiang Rai are feeling about the situation and would like to learn more on how state authorities have been working to address the problem and how they could assist to help improve the situation.

Dr. Worarat Imsanguan, a pulmonologist at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, also joined the event along with her colleagues to educate the public about the danger of PM2.5 to their health.

She said the fine dust is dubbed among physicians as a silent killer as it can penetrate deep into human cells inside the body and blood system and trigger inflammation and various diseases ranging from heart disease, stroke, to lung cancer if accumulated there for a long period. Vulnerable groups especially children are subject to higher risk from the fine dust than other people, she added.

In addition, a majority of people still hardly know about its danger especially over a long period, and what is of particular concern is the group of poor people who have far less access to information and protective gear. So, it’s those in power who must help address and tackle the problem, she said

“We cannot breathe this polluted air for a long period like this,” said Dr. Worarat, adding if the situation is left to be continued like it is, Chiang Rai could see more patients from this air pollution, which has already suggested an increasing trend in hospitals already.

Fires ravaged forests in the North extensively in early March. Photo: Sayan Chuenudomsavad

The crisis

As checked by Bangkok Tribune, the hotspots have significantly increased both inside and outside the country since the beginning of the year, compared to the first year of official records by the Pollution Control Department (PCD) in 2018.

As of April 7, the accumulative number of hotspots in Thailand was recorded at 134,945, almost ten times higher than the number of incidents recorded in 2018, which stood at 14,565 (Jan-May). Of these, over half or 84,846, were the hotspots that occurred in the Northern region, and over 95% of them happened in the forest areas. While in 2018, over half of the hotspots recorded or around 5,085 had happened in the Northeast, with over 50% of them detected in agricultural areas.

At the same time, the number of hotspots in neighbouring countries is no less ascending. According to the PCD, hotspots in the Mekong region were recorded at 727,822 already, or around seven times higher than the number of 101,320 incidents reported in Jan-May 2018 (Myanmar 276,256/41,204, Laos 180,235/27,417, Cambodia 104,210/23,106, and Vietnam 32,146/9,593).

The sharp increase in hotspots both inside and around the region has prompted the Northern region to have been choked with PM2.5 haze for over two months since late January, with the average 24-hour concentration crossing the hazardous level defined by the government at 100 µg/m³ for a number of days. On some days, the northern residents have to put up with the haze with a concentration that was over five times beyond the hazardous level. The highest concentration level of the fine dust was recorded on March 27 at 537 µg/m³, which occurred in Chiang Rai’s border district of Mae Sai.

On March 10, leading medical organisations issued a warning to the public for the first time, recommending residents in the haze-shrouded areas to duck indoors if an hourly concentration was beyond 100 µg/m³. By the end of March, the Public Health Ministry estimated that over two million people have their health affected by the haze with mild to severe symptoms as well as the most troubling respiratory effects already. 

The NEB had not convened its meeting until March 15. According to the national action plan, which was first formulated and endorsed in late 2019 using the PCD records, if the concentration level of the fine dust exceeds the hazardous level (crisis) “consecutively”, the NEB must call for an urgent meeting in order for it to come up with proposals and propose them to the Prime Minister to issue an order to tackle the problem at its sources as such.

The NEB, currently chaired by Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, at the March 15 meeting came up with immediate measures including the closure of the forest areas prone to forest fires and stringent law enforcement against violators as well as zero burning outdoors, while its long-term efforts included more focus on the pollution at its sources and budgets and planning_ the measures viewed by pollution experts and observers as nothing new.

And just on last Friday, PM Prayut called for an urgent trilateral meeting through video conference with Lao Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone and Myanmar leader Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing in an attempt to address the transboundary haze crisis together. At the meeting, PM Prayut proposed “The Clear Sky Strategy”, under which the Chiang Rai Plan of Action adopted by five countries in the Mekong sub-region in 2017 to address the transboundary haze crisis was recommended to be brought back to the focus, alongside other regional measures including the 42nd Asean Summit in Indonesia. 

These efforts, however, have just come too little and too late in the eyes of health and anti-pollution experts.

Also read: Officials struggle to keep PM2.5 in the North at bay as hotspots within and outside the country multiply