Getting from (PM)2.5 to Zero: Why unraveling the ‘Cause and Science’ of Air Pollution is critical for change
Experts from the Thailand Clean Air Network (Thai CAN) have been working hard to uncover the science behind particulate matters and the causes of air pollution. On Wednesday, August 19, the Circular Design Lab and Thai CAN launched “From PM2.5 to Zero” Digital Roadshow with a deep dive into the the science behind air pollution in Thailand.
From August to December this year, the Roadshow will feature a series of events that bring together experts and active citizens from academia, law, business, civil society, the arts to engage and elevate the discussion around what it means to have the right to breathe clean air. The goal of this Roadshow is twofold: to raise awareness and educate, but also to inspire and catalyze actions to systematically address the challenge of air pollution. Below is an overview of what we covered on our first digital “stop”, an effort led 100% by volunteers.
All across Thailand, people breathe unhealthy air on a regular basis. Though the scale of the air pollution problem changes from season to season, over the past decade air pollution has steadily become more severe. There’s fierce debate about what exactly is causing this; are Bangkok traffic, agricultural burning, or industrial emissions the real culprits? The gaps in effective air pollution monitoring in the country make answering this question more difficult.
Featuring a group of experts from the health, economics, and scientific communities, the Roadshow Kick-Off on August 19 was the first of four sessions designed to walk the audience through the body of research in the Clean Air Blue Paper — a recently-released report coordinated by Thai CAN as part of the process to drive for Thailand’s first comprehensive Clean Air Act. Read more about the process here. The session was moderated by Weenarin Lulitanonda, co-founder of Thai CAN, and Sugoon (Kin) Fucharoen, Circular Design Lab team member. It opened with outlining why a roadshow by Courtney Savie Lawrence, one of the coleads of the volunteer group: “Air pollution is an abstract issue — the Roadshow is one step towards understanding where the leverage points are so that we can tackle this issue.”
Highlights from the Experts who came to explain
Dr. Vanisa Surapipith, Atmospheric Scientist & Modeller at the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand and Clean Air Blue Paper co-author, began the panel discussion by breaking down the science behind harmful air pollution. Air pollution comes from many different sources, and most of the core components of harmful smog exist in nature. However, it is the unnatural combination of a high volume of PM 2.5 — the tiny particles that get lodged in our lungs or even enter our bloodstream and cause bodily harm — together with other culprits like nitrous oxide, aerosols, ozone, and other volatile organic compounds that react with sunlight and cause the toxic cocktail of a photochemical smog. What is worrisome is the anthropogenic activities that are causing this harmful air pollution to swell to unhealthy concentrations for long periods of time across the country. (See here for more on the science behind air pollution).
Dr. Vanisa highlighted that the causes for air pollution between different regions in Thailand are different. While Bangkok metropolitan area suffers from traffic and constructions, northern Thailand provinces such as Chiang Mai suffers more from seasonal biomass burning. It is critical, therefore, to be able to effectively monitor air pollution across different areas and understand better its various components and health impacts. This is an area that is still lacking in Thailand, as the number of official air quality monitoring stations provided by the Pollution Control Department is just about 70 all across the country; most of which are only located in the big cities. Khon Kaen, a major metropolis in Northeastern Thailand that regularly suffers from biomass burning-induced pollution, has zero monitoring station. Dr. Vanisa shared that, in Los Angeles, it took about ten years for the city to reduce their air pollution — with widespread monitoring being one of the key components to progress. Though it takes time, this is an example of how this is possible also for Thailand.
Beyond health, Dr. Vanisa also highlighted that air pollution is already seen to have an effect on climate change in Thailand, causing — for example -off-season rainstorms. In addition, a thick smog can trap heat and prevent sunlight from hitting the earth’s surface, causing adverse effects on things like crop productivity.
“We have to study further the impact PM2.5 has on both our health and the climate. That should be a trigger point for policymakers to do something about the problem. They have to be concerned about the health of their citizens and the health of the country at large.” — Dr. Vanisa Surapipith, National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand
Dr. Wirun Limsawart, Head of the Society and Health Institute at the Ministry of Public Health, walked through air pollution’s “environmental pathway” — its journey from the source to our body. This pathway informs how air pollution’s effects on health are measured, and also what actions we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones from its danger.
The Environmental Pathway
To tackle the air pollution problem, it’s necessary to work at all levels of the environmental pathway. In the pathway, “exposure, dose, and health effects” refer to the impacts to the body and represent a health problem, while the “source, emission, and concentration” refer to the nature of the pollution and represent an air quality problem. Looking at the source is key — by understanding the components we can understand the impacts on our health. However, this is only part of the picture. Differing concentration levels and degrees of exposure can make the same pollution circumstances impact our bodies very differently. Dr. Wirun describes “concentration” as similar to being in a room of people burning incense. A room with 1–2 incense burning will have less concentration of toxic air than a room with 100 incense burning. The length of stay in the toxic air will then determine the degree of “exposure”; the longer the time spent, the more exposure one gets. Dosage, or “dose” in the environmental pathway diagram, is then determined by the amount of breathing one does with the toxic air. A person exercising and breathing fast in a polluted environment would receive a higher dose of the toxic air than one with a more normal breathing. Concentration, exposure, and dosage will determine the health impact polluted air can have on people.
The issue with long-term air pollution exposure is reflected in Thailand’s existing air quality index standards. Dr. Wirun likens it to the country allowing people to be trapped in a room with 100 incense burning over a long period of time. In the short term, the effect may not be noticeable; but in the long run, the level of exposure will create suffocating impact. In contrast, using the same incense analogy, the U.S. only allows 30 incense burning in a room while WHO recommends no more than 10. This highlights the gap that still exists in Thailand in terms of its air quality standards.
With the current lack of stringent air pollution control, it is hard for individuals to do anything about “emission” and “concentration”. So we must rely on ourselves to protect against the pollution. To do that, Dr. Wirun recommends working with “exposure” and “dose”. By limiting the time you are outside or wearing a mask, you can limit your exposure. Likewise, by limiting the amount you breathe by not exercising outside during polluted times, you can limit your dosage or intake of the pollution. It is important as well to understand the varying sensitivities to air pollution among different groups of people. Children and the elderlies are generally more sensitive so may need more stringent protective measures.
“We need to understand the ‘sensitivities’ to air pollution, and design different protective measures that work for different groups. This is not unlike the COVID-19 pandemic. We have lockdowns for the pandemic; similarly we also need to have lockdowns for air pollution crises too.” — Dr. Wirun Limsawart, Ministry of Public Health
Ms. Penchom Saetang, Director ofthe EARTH Foundation, and Ashoka Fellow, gave further details on what the health effects of industrial pollution exposure in particular have been in Thailand. “The number of birth defects in thailand is not small. These can be caused by mercury or other heavy metals, but also by dioxin in the air,” Ms. Penchom said, saying it is difficult to estimate a full number of those affected by dioxin in air pollution, but it is not small. There has not yet been cause-and-effect studies directly linking dioxin with birth defects, which is one of the gaps in the academic look at air pollution in Thailand. It is apparent, however, that the prevalence of birth defects in areas close to factories — where dioxin is caused by incomplete combustion from incinerators — are high. Map Ta Phut (Rayong), a major industrial area in the eastern peninsula, has regularly recorded high levels of dioxin; including in the eggs from hens scavenging for food in the area. The monitoring and control of industrial emissions, therefore, is one area where effective governance is required.
Assoc.Prof.Dr. Witsanu Attavanich of the Faculty of Economics, Kasetsart University, closed the panel presentation with a look at Thailand’s national budgets between 2015 and 2020. From 2015–2020, the budget for the entire environment sector accounted for only 0.15% — 0.40% of the total budget, a stark contrast to the appropriations for economic development — a consistent approximate 21% of the national budget. The stark difference between 0.4% allocated for environmental work and 21% allocated for economic drive represents the highly unbalanced approach to national development in Thailand. Dr. Witsanu noted, “out of the 12 billion THB allocated for environmental issues in 2020, only 3 billion has been appropriated for air pollution work”. Relative to other countries and regions, such as the European Union and China, Thailand allocates significantly less funding to environmental issues; with the EU and China allocating around 2% of the regional/national budget to the environment.
The grave view of national expenditures shows that, despite clearly-demonstrated impacts from air pollution on climate and health, air pollution and environmental issues still do not get prioritized in the national policy.
“The budget appropriated for economic drive far exceeds that appropriated for environmental work. This signifies the highly-unbalanced approach to our nation’s development. We need to change the mindset, and drive for a more balanced development between economic growth and environmental protection.” — Assoc.Prof.Dr. Witsanu Attavanich, Kasetsart University
Synthesis and Next Roadshow Stops
Between looking at the science behind air pollution and its causes, the health impacts, and the issue with environmental-related expenditures, we now see the complexity of air pollution issues in Thailand. It is important that a sustainable solution be developed with a systems perspective in view. There will be no single silver bullet solution that magically gives us clean air, but rather a holistic approach with paradigm shift, infrastructure change, and policy push will be required.
As we continue with the Digital Roadshow, we will start to look deeper into the cost and the impact of air pollution, and the gaps in the solutions that we see. We will also have the opportunities to discuss, design, and drive collective actions toward a Clean Air Future for us all. So stay on this journey with us, and be part of the drive for #right2cleanair for all!
Join us for the next session on August 26th, where we hear from innovators and entrepreneurs reframing air pollution as an asset. You can easily register at https://www.right2cleanair.com — we hope to see you there.