Toxic Air: Air Quality Issues in Thailand

By: Phuriwat Sangkasanee

An Introduction (The Industrial Revolution)

Who knew the 18th century would introduce such a big revolution to the world? By revolution, we are talking about the industrial revolution, that is. The industrial revolution ranged from the latter of 1700, till the early 1800. Everything seemed so easy and convenient after the industrial revolution. All the cars you ride, the plane trips you flew during holidays, the items you bought delivered straight to your home within a few days by trucks, isn’t it convenient, perhaps a bit too good to be true? Well, frankly, it is indeed too good to be true. Ages ago, transportation was by means of domesticated animals, wagons or the most basic, walking. Travelling was hard and slow back then, let alone the strict working conditions that came along. Compared to the industrial revolution, our lives nowadays are much more at ease, but at what cost?

The Cost

Though many people take the Industrial Revolution to be positive change within the world, it comes with a cost. Ever since the Industrial Revolution came to be, carbon dioxide emissions rose through the roof. Not only did carbon emissions get worse, but it also exacerbated economic inequality. This led to a drastic change in the climate, and also impoverished the poor who worked in harsh jobs. These problems, mainly climate change, soon reached every country, and began dominating the world. With a predicted global temperature rising to 3.2°C by the end of the century (diverging rapidly from the ideal 1.5°C), the world is facing an environmental crisis.

(Air) Pollution / Climate Change / Global Warming in Thailand

Thailand, located in Southeast Asia and home to roughly 70 million people as of 2022 is no different from the rest of the world when it comes to climate change. Mainly, the contributing factor of climate change is due to air pollution. In Thailand, industrial discharge, automobile emissions, biomass, and agricultural burning are the major causes of climate change and global warming. These major contributors of climate change do not only affect the environment, but also the health of individuals, which is why taking action is a priority.

Industrial Pollution: Air Pollution

Industrial discharges can be in the form of air pollution and water pollution. Out of the two, air pollution is known to be more threatening, as it can cause health issues, mainly affecting the respiratory system of living things. Prominent effects on health can vary from breathing difficulty to lung cancer. This issue can be accentuated by what is called “PM 2.5”, which once concerned all of Thailand due to its high abundance in early 2019. Statistics show Thailand as the 28th most polluted country, out of the 98 countries, ranked on the 2019 World Air Quality Report. PM 2.5 is a form of air pollutant referred to as “fine particulate matter”. This air pollutant is incredibly small, ranging from 2.5 microns or smaller in size, hence its name. As reference, a single strand of hair from an average human is approximately 70 microns in diameter; thus the air pollutant particles are roughly 30 times smaller than a hair strand in diameter. These PM 2.5 particles can only be seen visibly using a microscope.

Due to its incredibly tiny size, it can travel its way down a person’s lung and cause irritation, which can be as severe as eroding and embedding the alveolar wall, causing lung malfunction. This event in Thailand marked air pollution to be threatening, and thus, should be regulated properly to minimize potential health issues regarding the respiratory system. Furthermore, research from the World Health Organization in 2018 concur air pollution to plant long-term health effects on people, specifically, stating that living in an air polluted environment reduces a person’s lifespan by two years. Not only does it cause long-term health effects, but it also affects the environment negatively, namely, causing environmental stresses such as acid rain, droughts and floods.

Industrial Pollution: Water Pollution

Unlike air pollution, water pollution tends to affect the digestive system. It is caused by contaminations of bodies of water generally through industrial discharge or improper waste disposal. The anthropogenic sources also include accidents like oil spills, which can severely impact the water quality and marine ecosystem. In May of 2011, approximately 2,400 tons of brown sugar dissolved into a major river in Thailand, the Chao Phraya River, which affected the marine environment and killed more than 20 tons of marine life. Additionally, 2014 marked another year Thailand faced a water pollution accident, specifically an oil spill, where a 6.4-kilometer spill of crude oil occurred near Koh Tao, an island located at the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. This ultimately led to a severe environmental impact on marine animals and also changes in salinity levels. With fishing being prominent, this crisis can also be passed to humans through the ingestion of seafood that once lived in crude oil.

Despite many individuals having a clean water supply, not everyone in the world has access to it. Thus, water pollution isn’t only endangering the marine ecosystem but also humans who ingest contaminated water. Though ingesting is the most common entrance into the human body for bacteria, surrounding yourself or swimming in contaminated water can also lead to severe issues.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are currently 2.2 billion people who don’t have proper access to clean water, and that by 2025, half of the world’s population will be surrounded by highly contaminated water. Thailand is no different, as, in conformity with The Global Aid Network (GAN), 4.3 million people of Thailand (roughly 6 percent of the Thailand population) are consuming contaminated water.

Automobile Emission

Circling back to the mention of “convenience”, automobile vehicles’ emissions, another form of air pollution, are a big contributor to climate change and global warming as well. In May of 1998, Thailand endorsed and followed the Euro system of light-duty vehicle emissions standards, administered by the Pollution Control Department (PCD) to limit and minimize automobile emissions. The current standard is Euro 4, with vehicles in categories of:

  • M1: passenger vehicles with 8 or less seats

  • M2: buses including more than 8 seats in addition to the driver’s seat

  • N1: not exceeding 3500 kilograms.

Vehicles are categorized uniquely for regulatory purposes, in which M1 vehicles are passenger vehicles comprising 8 or less seats in addition to the driver’s seat, M2 are buses that include more than 8 seats in addition to the driver’s seat, and N1, vehicles used for carrying goods limited to 3.5 tonnes. However, even with strict regulations and standards, Thailand wasn’t able to maintain a healthy environment. According to a study on September 10th, 2018 in the University of Toronto Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, trucks are the main culprits of heavy air pollution. The idea of having smaller vehicles run around could not last, because with smaller vehicles, there is less efficiency in transporting resources or people.

Electric Cars

Electric cars are perceived to shape the future positively, lowering emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants. These highly demanded vehicles are said to be the hope to remedy the environmental damage caused by gasoline-powered vehicles. It is stated that, by 2035, most automotive markets will turn fully electric, coinciding with Thailand’s aim to only put on sale zero-emission vehicles and banning petrol sales. Currently, Thailand has an abundance of less than 1% of vehicles that are electric. They are boldly aiming to have 50% of new car registrations be electric by the end of the decade and the production of only electric cars by 2035. With this endeavor, the next decade is expected to mark a revolution to the world’s environmental health, mainly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from gas-powered vehicles altogether (thailand automotive institute).

Combustion of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are natural sources of energy. They often are in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas, which are then combusted to generate energy. These sources of energy aren’t necessarily limited to coal, oil and natural gas, though, as biomasses are also burnt to create energy, mainly including decomposing plants and animals. Combustion reactions are almost always exothermic, hence why they produce energy; however, they always produce carbon dioxide which is a side effect. The burning of fossil fuel, essentially, is like extracting energy from an energy capsule. This way of generating energy has existed many years ago; it was prominent during the 1800s when coal was commonly used to generate heat in households.

In Asia, many countries associate the words “eat” and “rice” together, as rice is the staple food of asia. Whether it be in Thailand, in Korea, or in China, the phrase “have you eaten” translates into “have you eaten rice?”. Respectively, the phrases “gin khao laew yang?”, “pab meog-eoss-eo?”, and “chi fan le ma” literally translates into “did you eat rice yet”? This accentuates how rice is important in Asia culture, and with farming being the source of rice, agriculture is often a recurring problem with regards to pollution.

Agriculture is heavily influenced by and vulnerable to climate change due to pollution, as it directly limits yields and ruins the crops. Interestingly, agriculture isn’t just a victim of climate change, but also contributes to climate change. Farming is directly linked to air and water pollution as pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic chemicals get washed into main bodies of water, damaging the marine ecosystem. Additionally, agricultural burning is also a technique used to aid farmers in cleansing and removing crop residues off the field after harvesting crops. However, it causes pollution, which exacerbates the indefinite loop of climate change. As farming is very much important to many different cuisines, the consequences of agriculture are often overlooked.

(Effects of) COVID-19

2019 marks the start of Covid-19 while 2020 marks the spread of the coronavirus. This was an overall unfortunate curse upon the world, but if inspected closely, it has also brought some positive changes to the world. In March of 2020, Thailand kicked off the year with a lockdown, and several studies in 2020 have shown air quality to be superior compared to previous years. With a dramatic decrease in the harmful PM 2.5 concentrations by 15.8% and 20.7% during and after lockdown respectively, diminished human activity is manifested to engineer a healthier environment.

The Solution (s) / Littering

Noticeable changes in the climate have sparked the careful disposal of pollutants. Mainly, many different countries have tackled the topic of improper waste disposal, informally known as littering. Even in small amounts, the rubbish aggregates into huge amounts of waste over each year. The items that are commonly disposed of inappropriately include plastic bags, tobacco waste, food wrappers, plastic bottles, straws, and etc. Noticeably, plastic is highly abundant when it comes to littering. This poses a huge threat to the environment as plastic is not favorable to be burnt due to the release of toxic chemicals, contributing to air pollution. Littering also morphs into a form of water pollution as well, which directly harms the marine ecosystem.

In 2020, Thailand banned the usage of plastic bags in major markets. According to the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Thailand ranked sixth amongst the world’s top countries in terms of waste pollution. However, due to the cooperation and awareness of people in Thailand, the country went down to the tenth within five months! The usage of plastic bags was reduced by roughly 5,700 tonnes within 2019, the first phase of the no plastic campaign, and later improved with the plastic ban the following year. This event, specifically, conveys that awareness is important, and that social issues can be easily tackled with cooperation. Thus, on behalf of Science for the People Thailand, we demand that such trends are to be continued and for companies to consider even enacting less use of waste in their goods.


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