Thailand air pollution: Smoke from forest fires blankets Chiang Mai

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Bangkok, Thailand

Smoke from fires in northern Thailand is making it hard to breathe, and at least one hospital in Chiang Mai says it’s reached “full ward capacity” as people present with respiratory issues from breathing air pollution.

Air pollution has been a longstanding problem in Thailand, usually caused by heavy road traffic in the case of the capital Bangkok.

But this year, pollution levels spiked across the country as a result of forest fires and widespread crop burning during the annual slash and burn farming season between December to April.

For at least seven days straight, Chiang Mai ranked as the world’s most polluted city according to forecasts by the Air Quality Index (AQI), a Swiss company that tracks air quality worldwide. Chiang Mai is a major tourism and transport hub in Thailand attracting millions of international visitors a year – and April is near the end of peak tourism season.

K Preecha, a local cafe owner in Chiang Mai, told CNN that the air had become “increasingly polluted and dangerous to breathe” since January and was now “strong and smelly.”

“It’s already April but the situation has gotten worse – there’s no improvement and a lot of people have fallen so sick,” he said. “It’s scary to think (of) breathing in air that will kill you.”

Satellite images taken and released by the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), Thailand’s space agency, in late March showed 5,572 fire hot spots – “the highest in 5 years,” the organization said.

According to a Thai government statement issued on 28 March, air pollution was now affecting 1.7 million people across the country, including people suffering from respiratory diseases, skin irritations and eye infections.

Chiang Mai as pictured on 12 March, 2023.

In Chiang Mai, more than 12,000 patients sought medical treatment for respiratory issues between January and March, according to a statement from Maharaj Nakorn Hospital, part of Chiang Mai University.

But the hospital has been struggling to cope with the massive numbers of people seeking help for ailments, including asthma, upper respiratory infections, conjunctivitis and emphysema, a serious lung condition that causes shortness of breath.

For several days last week, fire tore through Nakhorn Nayok in central Thailand, engulfing two mountains and spreading to Khao Nang Dam, a forest park. Helicopters were sent to douse the flames, which were finally extinguished on Sunday.

“The smoke crisis has happened in every area in the north, especially in Chiang Mai where air pollution (levels) of PM 2.5 are continuously increasing and this has affected people’s health,” said the Maharaj Nakorn Hospital statement.

Chiang Mai's mayor Asanee Buranupakor distributes KN95 masks to residents on 30 March, 2023.

Fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, is made up of microscopic particles, which are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The particles, which include pollutants such as sulfate, nitrates and black carbon, are considered particularly harmful as they are small enough to enter deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system. Exposure to such particles has been linked to lung and heart disorders and can impair cognitive and immune functions.

“There are patients who can’t be admitted for medical treatment … due to continued full capacity of patients’ wards,” the Maharaj Nakorn Hospital statement added.

However, Pannawich Chantaklang, a doctor at Nakornping Hospital in Chiang Mai told CNN that the number of patients suffering from diseases related to air pollution had been “high” but was considered normal for this time of year.

“We have not been overwhelmed, we can still receive more patients but the number of people receiving treatment related to air pollution is higher,” he said.

“According to statistics we have collected from past 3 years, the number should gradually decrease when we approach the end of April… (but) we will continue to be vigilant monitoring the situation.”

Medical experts and health bodies have documented harmful effects and the lasting impact of air pollution.

The WHO has said that air pollution remains a “concerning public health issue, with the potential to cause premature death.”

A study conducted in 2022 by scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London also found that air pollution poses a greater threat to life expectancy than smoking.

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