I can see it now: the beginning of some campy horror flick—maybe directed by John Carpenter—the opening credits have finished rolling and the rising sun can barely be seen as it is muted into a fuzzy giant fiery globe over an empty city. Though Carpenter might film a post apocalyptic film in the future, this is anything but a movie—this is my walk to work most mornings.
From the start of each day, our sun is barely even given a chance to freely shine, its rays having to first pierce the smoke and haze that stagnantly rests above our every move. Yes, I’m talking (like everyone at the moment) about air pollution in our bustling city of Chiang Mai.
Though this perennial haze makes its way yearly and unfortunately overstays its visit, we continue to be surprised. Gasp! Shock! Uproar! The Bitch is back and we’ve done nothing to make her feel unwelcome this year. The consensus—that this year has been the WORST—though, just might be different enough to get the wheels greased to move in a direction that will alleviate this problem in years to come. With social media on the rise and hashtags like #righttobreathe, the problem of Northern Thailand’s air pollution is most definitely getting it’s fair coverage.
The recent thought provoking work of graphic artist, Mr. Anukun Hamala, depicting the three kings Mengrai, Ramkamhaeng, and Ngam Muang (our city’s purported founding fathers) all wearing N95 facemasks is eerily spot on of how us “Chiang-ers” are feeling right now: tired and breathless.
We know smoky season can start as early as January and last until the end of April. We know what is going on to cause this haze: agribusiness and the burning of fields (many reasons we’ve all heard for this), the year round burning of personal rubbish, the exhaust emissions from most vehicles on wheels, our geography and basin location, and another kicker—the lack of rain.
All of these combined, and the result is a post-apocalyptic horror scene where the remaining population’s faces are half covered by purifying masks. In order to gauge these levels a quick a quick gloss over on Air Quality Index (AQI) and what all of these numbers mean will be needed.Simply enough, the AQI is the grouping of numerical data that government agencies employ to determine how badly the air in any region is polluted, and even to forecast how bad any region might be polluted in the future. Continuing on the simple route—the higher the number, the more harmful the air is the population. The current AQI has been divided into 6 separate groups of differing colors, all within the range of 0-500. But what are these numbers? Everything that we are seeing—or barely seeing—is being recorded and analyzed at two main monitoring stations located at City Hall and Yupparaj Wittayalai School. These stations are mainly looking for the following five pollutants: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (a.k.a. particulate matter, or PM), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
It is a good thing that we have these stations throughout countries to gauge how bad the air is but also because they are paired with public service announcements of what the given number could mean for you or your family.
The United Nations’ World Health Organization has declared that no more than 50 parts per cubic meter is healthily acceptable, while the Thai government has deemed that anything under 120 parts per cubic meter is completely acceptable. Not to say that the possible affects have doubled from that jump, but why such a huge difference between what is okay for the average person? As mentioned before with the emerging #Righttobreathe campaign, the government is being petitioned to “immediately adopt the World Health Organisation Standard for the identification of dangerous levels of particulate matter for both PM10 and PM 2.5. If you are curious to find Chiang Mai’s AQI at any given time check this out!
Along with this recent petition, there are also more air pollution combatant initiatives that have popped over the past some years. Against one of largest suppliers of this haze—fires—implementation of fire bans along with the extinguishment of forest fires are in order. We see the signs for it. We hear about it. But why can you still see bright flames hugging the roads in the mountains or the sting of smoke every time you take a breath, day or night? Even on a quick trip to Mae Hong Song province you might find yourself face to face with walls of fire on either side of you. Are these bans getting enforced? Is it the police’s laissez-faire attitude or the poor farmer that is only doing what he has for generations? These hard questions are unanswerable, and the situation will take time, maybe even several generations to see any real difference if any. It’s not going to be easy.
There are many websites that can help you deal with the smoke and the air pollution–mask recommendations, staying indoors during peak pollution times, etc.–so I will leave that for them. Along with the air pollution that gets talked about this time of year, is the heat. Yes, just as we know to expect the smoke we also can always expect the heat. Personally, I love this weather (and I’ll try to never complain about it either), but as it literally ‘cooks’ the polluted air around us, I’m beginning to become cautious of what I’m breathing. I must be lucky, because until now the smoke has never really gotten to me. So, I join the masses in the hopes of rain. We are almost there: the fresh rain will soon wash the smoke monster away, also saving us from the current drought. Clear skies. Clean Air. Most likely, washing away any momentum in the struggle to address the issue of air pollution in Northern Thailand, at least until next year. Then again, maybe this year will be different.