Is Chiang Mai habitable by humans?

Is Chiang Mai habitable by humans?

4 April 2007

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All urban air is ‘dangerous’ to some degree: civilisation produces air pollutants, and these damage health. However, for a significant portion of the year, Chiang Mai’s air is more polluted than that of most cities

by John MacGregor

Thailand — Chiang Mai has been blanketed in carcinogenic smoke for many weeks. For a large part of the year, Chiang Mai’s air is more polluted than that of most cities. This is because of the high level of burning around the city and beyond, and the northwestern Suthep Range, which blocks the northwesterly and southeasterly winds – winds which would otherwise wash out air pollution – during the cool and rainy seasons, respectively. In addition, a drier dry season in the North means there is less rain to settlepollutants.

Thus, according to one study, in six of the seven categories of air pollution measured in both cities, Chiang Mai had higher concentrations than Bangkok – in most cases far higher concentrations. More specifically, Chiang Mai’s level of particulates of less than 10 microns (In 1999, 45% of Chiang Mai residents suffered from respiratory problems, according to Duangchan Charoenmuang, who has studied Chiang Mai’s air at the Urban Development InstituteFoundation. The broader Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure of most known air pollutants. The AQI is frequently elevated above dangerous levels in Chiang Mai, on and off, for several months of the year – usually the January-March “burning season”, but frequently longer. The city’s AQI readings are more often than not higher than those of other Thai cities, including Bangkok.

Some of Chiang Mai’s smog is carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide from industrial and vehicle emissions and cooking fires; and dust from building projects. The levels vary across the municipality, e.g. they are much higher at Wararot Market and along Thapae Road. But most of the “smog” is smoke, and this comes from the deliberate burning of crops and other vegetation, and of forests (often by villagers to trigger the growth of wild thob mushrooms, or by poachers to flush out game); and also from non-deliberate forest and grass fires. These smoke sources are local (Chiang Mai province), regional (northern Thailand) and international (Burma and Laos; but also the “Asian Brown Cloud” stretching from eastern China through Southeast Asia to Pakistan). No one knows proportionally how much smoke comes from eacharea.

As lowland agriculturalists in the North allegedly only burn selectively, and because so many forest fires are raging in the highlands, many deliberately lit, the current theory is that these highland forest fires – coupled with an abnormal cold front from China that is trapping haze in the northern valleys – are the prime source of Chiang Mai’s recent pall of smoke. However, there is a certain capacity for denial and misattribution of blame in Thai officialdom, so this theory needs to be taken with a grain of salt for themoment.

In the short term, Chiang Mai’s smoke gives residents coughs, headaches, sore throats, red streaming eyes, sneezing fits and more serious bronchial illnesses. It caused dozens of heart attacks in 2007. In 2003, there were 704,800 hospital cases of respiratory disease recorded in Chiang Mai province – roughly twice that of 10 years earlier. The Chiang Mai-Lamphun Air Pollution Control Project states that patients with general respiratory diseases in Chiang Mai outnumber those in Bangkok. Over the three days to March 20, 2007, the number of respiratory patients in Mae Hong Son rose from 416 to 3,541; in Chiang Rai, from 1,780 to 11,148; and in Chiang Mai from 1,370 to 4,514.

In the longer term, Chiang Mai’s smoke raises the rates of lung cancer and other chronic or fatal ailments. Chiang Mai has the second-highest lung cancer rate in the world, according to Prof Sumittra Thongprasert from the Medical Ecology Department of Chiang Mai University – and higher than any other region of Thailand. The city’s 139 lung cancer cases per 100,000 population is almost six times the worldaverage.

An academic study, and a separate news report citing an academic expert, both claim that Chiang Mai, despite its vastly smaller population, has a higher number of lung cancer patients than Bangkok. Other studies have found Chiang Mai’s “total suspended particulate (TSP) concentrations to be higher than those of Bangkok, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City”.

The Public Health Bill of 1992 prescribes that any person who violates the bill by burning their garbage “can be imprisoned for up to six months or fined up to 10,000 baht or both, and will be fined 5,000 baht each day if they continue polluting the environment”. But the failure of Chiang Mai’s provincial government to attack the problem of air pollution – or even recognise it – has been close to absolute, the recent sabre-rattling notwithstanding. Activists and academic experts have been hammering away at the government for nearly a decade, to littleavail.

Dr Duangchan, who has spent a number of years studying air pollution in Chiang Mai, and who has discussed the problem with the mayor among other civic leaders, believes the city authorities have no intention of doing anything about the problem. She believes politicians are afraid that publicly acting against air pollution might lose the city tourists; but more generally she adds: “Frankly, they are just not clever enough to combat such a vastproblem.”

Chiang Mai City Clerk Ken Santitham has commented: “I think that the academics exaggerate. Our air problems are not thatsevere.”

Regarding the action taken to date, Mr Ken states: “I think that our record has been impressive.” The City Clerk employs an environment department of one. This employee, Rongrong Duriyapunt, takes a different view: she believes her department’s budget (400,000 baht) is far too small to achieve anythingmuch.

The Thai media are on the case, but are credulous and prone to print wild inaccuracies. The Bangkok Post, at the height of the recent emergency, reported straight-facedly a government claim that a major source of the smoke was Korean barbequerestaurants.

No major media outlet has yet asked why no fire-starters have been charged, fined or jailed; or whether there is any science behind the government-ordered practice of spraying water out of planes, or having fire trucks hose the streets to “raise humidity and inducerain”.

No Thai reporter has answered for us the $64,000 question: exactly where does the smoke comefrom?

In January-March, the same three-month period that firebugs were not arrested, fires were not systematically fought, and Korean restaurants were being ordered to douse their barbeques, posters reported deliberately-lit fires all over the north of Thailand. Satellite fire maps showed more than 4,000 fires throughout the North in the first half of March. More than half the time, Chiang Mai’s dangerous levels of air pollution begin in January and end late March or early April. However, they have begun as early as August and ended as late as lateJune. 

Four bad years out of eight suggests a 2:1 probability of getting a bad year in any given year. But even if there were two or three “good” years in a row, averages assert themselves in time: a Chiang Mai resident will inevitably end up with a higher bodily load of carcinogens and general pollutants than residents of other Thai cities, and of most other places in the world. We don’t need to guess about this, or extrapolate from the daily pollution readings: it is borne out by the city’s extraordinary lung cancer and respiratory illnessrates.

In a nutshell, the Chiang Mai resident faces: 1) Two of Thailand’s most entrenched cultures – rural burning and government apathy; 2) No concrete proposal to change either (talk notwithstanding); 3) On average, dangerously high pollution levels, on-off, through about 25% of every second year; 4) An elevated probability of lung cancer, respiratory ailments and other illnesses (children and the elderly being the most vulnerable); 5) Frequent media misinformation as to the causes and extent of the problem, and a failure to identifywrongdoers.

In light of the above, does one keep one’s self and one’s family in northern Thailand, or does one move to somewhere like Surat Thani, which from a quick scan of 10 years of data has never had a day where
That is up to you.
Journalist John Macgregor is moving from the northern valley to the southern coast.

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