The hazardous smog that has blanketed Bangkok and other cities in the past week should have prompted the government and state agencies to respond with effective crisis-management and integrated long-term plans to tackle the root causes of the problem.
Disappointingly, they have failed the public, putting people at increasing health risks including premature death from lung cancer and heart failure.
The Pollution Control Department and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) have reported on the unsafe levels of PM2.5 – particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres (µg/m³) or less –in several areas of greater Bangkok.
But authorities have just advised people to stay indoors or wear protective masks, without letting on that it is a real crisis.
In fact, both short-term and long-term exposure to airborne particulate matter risks adverse health impacts, predominantly to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2012, ambient air pollution contributed to 6.7 percent of all deaths worldwide.
The PM2.5 levels in the capital range between 70 and 100 µg/m³, exceeding the country’s “safe level” of 50 µg/m³ daily. More alarmingly, they are far higher than the WHO’s safe average threshold of 25 µg/m³. The WHO has also set an annual average safe limit of 10 µg/m³.
A delayed and unhelpful response also came from the Public Health Ministry, which blithely said the situation does not call for the public to panic. It has not yet reached a critical level of more than 200 µg/m³, the ministry added. The same attitude has come from the government.
Actually, the government should have declared this as a public health crisis, advising people to do their best to protect their health with specific guidelines on what they should do. Immediate measures such as school closures, suspension of outdoor activities and minimal travel should have been made priorities for the public.
The majority of PM2.5 primarily originates from sources of combustion. Motor vehicles, power plant emissions and bushfires are also major contributors.
This is not the first year that Bangkok has been covered by an unhealthy cloud of smog and it won’t be the last. This translates into the need for long-term preventative and mitigation measures. With vehicle emissions a major source of PM2.5 in the city, it is high time that unpopular measures are enforced to limit the use of personal cars and ban highly polluting ones.
The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority needs to remove all black fume-belching old buses from the roads and replace them with more environmentally friendly vehicles. Additionally, the state needs to make elevated rail services affordable for the majority.