by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, February 13, 2019
Tourists are being advised to wear respiratory masks in Bangkok after a toxic haze, which descended on the city in December, shows no signs of moving.
The haze arrived in December as a result of high air pressure, car emissions, construction dust, coal-fired power plants, crop burning close to the city and wind conditions.
On January 30, pollution in the city reached 200 micrograms per cubic metre on the World Air Quality Index (AQI). According to the United States’ Environment Protection Agency, anything below 50 is ‘good’, 51 to 100 is ‘moderate’, 101 to 150 is ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’, 151 to 200 is ‘unhealthy’ and 201 to 300 is ‘very unhealthy’. Above 200 micrograms per cubic metre, anyone could experience serious health effects.
For comparison, the peak air quality index in Manchester today is 42, central London is 77, Paris is 105 and New Delhi is 167. Today, the Bangkok reading is 174.
At the time of writing there is no published evidence that international arrivals have been affected by the smog, although last month the Kasikorn Research Center published a study estimating the economic losses for Bangkok could reach 2.6 billion baht (£65 million) because of the impact on the health and tourism industries.
“Foreign holiday makers intending to visit Bangkok may change their travel plans to other destinations in Thailand. This scenario may not affect our tourism overall, but if the air pollution problem persists, such international tourists may decide to spend their holidays in other countries instead,” the report said. “In this case, Thai tourism might be adversely affected.”
Approximately 5 million Thai and foreign tourists visit Bangkok per month, generating around 80 billion baht (£2 billion) in revenue from tourism-related businesses. The city witnessed a similar air quality crisis last year, prompting fears that it could become a recurring issue every winter.
In late January over 400 schools were ordered to close as the pollution in the Thai capital intensified. Air quality reached unhealthy levels in 39 areas and the city governor, Aswin Kwanmuang, warned that “children might be harmed”.
The UK Foreign Office advice has been updated to reflect the poor air quality in Bangkok. It reads: “Urban areas across Thailand, especially in Bangkok, are currently experiencing poor air quality and high PM 2.5 levels.
"This may aggravate bronchial, sinus or asthma conditions. Children, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions may be especially affected. You can check air quality levels for many cities in real time on the World Air Quality Index website.”
PM2.5 is the term used for atmospheric particulate matter (PM) that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, which is approximately 3 per cent the diameter of a human hair. Because the particles are so small, they linger in the air for longer and are able to bypass the nose and throat – affecting the lungs and potentially entering the circulatory system.
The Embassy of Oman in Thailand has advised its citizens to wear protective respiratory masks in the capital as a precautionary measure. When the haze first arrived in Bangkok, the Pollution Control Department (PCD) said: “People are advised to avoid staying outdoors. If they need to go out, they should wear a face mask."
A similar haze has descended on Chiang Mai, Thailand’s fourth biggest city. Today the Pollution Control Department warned schoolchildren to wear facemarks outside in Chiang Mai, with a health alert issued for the elderly, pregnant and chronically ill.
The Thailand Meteorological Department has forecast that the smog situation will ease when the winter season ends, bringing stronger winds and rainfall across the country. However, Thailand’s country director for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Tara Buakamsri, fears El Nino could make the air quality situation worse before it gets better.
“It will last until at least end of February… and it will get worse as a result of El Niño that will take place very soon,” she was reported as saying in the South China Morning Post.
Occurring every two to seven years, El Niño is a naturally occuring meteorological event which causes temperatures to fluctuate in the Pacific Ocean, prompting extreme weather patterns in countries around the world. It brings wet weather in the typically dry eastern Pacific and drought in the western Pacific, and record temperatures as heat rises from the Pacific.
In its most recent report, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation placed the chance of a full-fledged El Niño occuring in February at 75 to 80 per cent.