Credit: Greenpeace Thailand

Stringent measures approved to cope with worsening haze in Bangkok

Thai PM has threatened to deliver even more drastic ones that include a ban on private vehicles

At the mobile Cabinet meeting in Narathiwas in the Deep South, PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha said the Cabinet has approved stiff measures lining up to deal with the ongoing fine PM2.5 induced haze situation, which has gone from bad to worse since the mid of the month, partly due to the continued stagnant weather following the cold mass from China moving in that prompted temperature inversion.

The measures are said to be followed the national action plan introduced to tackle haze last year.

The action plan specifically addresses the “emergency or crisis” period of time covering the dry season of Winter and early Summer, from December to February, with four main steps of measures lining up to deal with haze at different degrees of severity. 

The highest level, so-called a crisis, is when the haze reaches the concentration level of 100 micrograms per cubic meter. The safe concentration level determined by the Pollution Control Deparment is at 50 micrograms per cu m while the WHO’s is at 25.

Among the heightened measures, 12 at least, include limits of large vehicles in inner Bangkok, a ban on pollution generating vehicles and factories, a ban on field burnings, and others.

The Prime Minster assured that the measures would be taken in steps and he didn’t want to take the extreme ones for fears of repurcussions. The PM, however, did not rule out the possibility, saying at the height of the incident, it’s the government, not government agencies or governors, that would take control of the situation with extreme measures at hands including a ban on private vehicles.

“People have asked for stringent measures and said we have done nothing to solve the problem. But if the government takes control, there would be a lot of trouble lining up following the bans placed here and there. Are you really sure that you want to get there?” said the premier.

The source said the National Environment Board would call for a meeting to help prioritise them again within this week.

PM2.5 in Bangkok city has become worsened again this week. The situation first emerged in the mid of this month that saw the PM2.5 haze reached its height at over 100 micrograms per cu m during Jan 10-11 before slightly easing over the weekend and was then back again, with the concentration level climbing up since Jan 16, when the weather was reportedly stagnant due to a cold mass moving in from China.

The situation remains severe with today’s concentration levels upto 89 micrograms per cu m, and almost all areas in Bangkok, 50 out of 53 monitoring stations, were reported as areas with the air pollution that “has started to have affects on people’s health” (with the PM2.5 concentrations between 51-90 micrograms per cu m).

The trend has not yet been at ease as the Meteorological Department projects that the cold mass would still be blanketing Bangkok in the next few days, the PCD said. Some schools declared closed today to mitigate the situation.

The threat

Thailand awakened to the extent of the problem just a few years ago when the PCD fully rolled out devices to detect and measure the particles in areas throughout Bangkok, revealing shocking facts of such high concentrations of the particles.

The country’s haze problem has also been exacerbated by field clearings and burnings in the North and neighbouring countries and further down South.

To deal with the problem, the government has come up with phases of operation, in line with the severity of the dust concentrations, with the level beyond 100 micrograms per cu m being addressed as “emergency or crisis”

In the city like Bangkok, diesel-driven vehicles have been identified as the prime cause of the haze due to their incomplete combustion, followed by sprawling construction sites and other dust generating activities.

According to the Thailand Development Research Institute’s Transportation and Logistics Policy Department, the number of vehicles in Bangkok jumped over the past 10 years, from around 2.9 million personal and small transport vehicles in 2008 to around 5.56 million vehicles by 2017. 

Of these, 38 per cent, or around 2.1 million, are diesel-fuelled.

As of last year, the number of vehicles in Bangkok rose up to 10 million, with 2.7 million being identified as diesel-fuelled, according to the Land Transport Department.

Anti-air pollution experts have called for more stringent measures and so far the govenment has introduced the national agenda and action plan to addreess the problem.

But measures implemented and the degree of success have hardly been addressed to the public, prompting them to be skeptical about the plan.

Global challenge

PM 2.5 is critical to global public health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water.

While particles with a diameter of 10 microns or less can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, the even more health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, as they can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system. 

Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer, it said.

In its report in 2018 during the time when the dust became an issue in the region, the organisation said outdoor air pollution in both cities and rural areas was estimated to cause 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2016.

91% of the 4.2 million premature deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and the greatest burden was in South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions, it further pointed.

The organisation introduced the thresholds with the annual mean that stood at 10 micrograms per cu m and the 24-hour mean at 25.

It also recommended that policies and investments supporting cleaner transport, energy-efficient homes, power generation, industry and better municipal waste management would reduce key sources of outdoor air pollution.