Smog gets in their eyes


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 Mar 2003

By M. VEERA PANDIYAN

AS Bangkok stirs itself from sleep early each morning, the city skyline is shrouded in what appears to be a soft, wispy mist. 

Visitors harbouring such dreamy notions are brought back to reality soon enough. Along with other amazing things about Thailand, among the first things they will discover is the perpetual haze that hovers over the City of Angels. 

Unlike in Malaysia, where trans-boundary smog from Indonesian forest fires and open burning evoke the annual jitters, Thais seem to have learned to live in the foul air of their capital. 

With the exception of those who suffer from asthma, allergic rhinitis and eczema, most seem to be resigned to the smoke and dust in the streets. 

Surgical masks are part of the uniform for traffic policemen and toll-booth clerks. They are also standard protection gear for hawkers pushing their ubiquitous roadside cooking carts. 

Operators of the whimsical three-wheeled tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis, whose survival is dependent on transporting people through the grid-locked sois of the city, are similarly masked. 

Many others no longer bother to do so. At best, bus commuters hold a handkerchief to their noses when the vehicle is stuck in yet another traffic jam. 

Oblivious to the wafting dust in the air, health freaks turn up in droves at Lumpini Park, the city's only green lung, for their daily jog or walk. 

Alarmed by such indifference from the public and the steady rise of illnesses caused by air pollution, Thai doctors are demanding more reliability in the government's air quality reports. 

A recent study by the Siriraj Hospital showed that the number of students in the city afflicted by eczema, asthma and rhinitis, had risen by 30%. 

“Many medical studies in the area indicate that the prevalence of these diseases is directly associated with increasing air pollution,” said Prof Dr Pakit Vichayanond, who led the study. 

The doctor, from the hospital’s Department of Paediatrics, said students living near busy roads were more exposed to the incessant exhaust smoke from buses and lorries, and ended up being sick more often. 

He contended that air quality was emerging as a major problem because the number of vehicles on the roads had been increasing tremendously over the past few years. 

His colleague, Dr Nithitpat Jearakul of the Respiratory Disease and Tuberculosis division, agrees.  

He said Siriraj’s statistics showed that cases of people afflicted by respiratory diseases were more severe than ever with death rates for lung diseases continuing to rise. 

“Patients suffer coughing or wheezing for much longer periods after catching a cold,” he said. 

Nitaya Vajanapoom, a Thammasat University Faculty of Science and Technology expert in the acute effects of air pollution on health, painted an even more dire picture of the situation. 

He warned there was a potential for a heavy smog outbreak in Bangkok, along the pattern of deaths and illnesses caused by the 1952 “London fog disaster,” the 1953 “New York episode” and the 1992 Mae Moh case in the North of Thailand. 

London, long known for its foggy weather and coal-burning homes, power plants, and factories, faced dense smog in December 1952.  

The lethal fog resulted in about 3,000 more deaths than normal in the city. The London fog is widely regarded as a catalyst for the study of air pollution epidemiology. 

In November the following year, a similar situation in New York killed between 170 and 260 people. 

Thailand's worst pollution disaster was recorded in October 1992 when cool air flooding south-east from China washed into the valleys of the Mae Moh province, forming an atmospheric inversion.  

It trapped sulphurous exhaust from 13 coal-burning power plants, causing gases to react with the fog and form acid rain. 

Cows died by the herds, rice plants wilted and crops were scorched by the acidic shower. Farmers suffered searing pains in the throat, eyes and lungs. More than 4,000 people had to seek medical help. 

While it may be an exaggeration to compare the three disasters to the current state of Bangkok's air pollution, the danger signs are already there. 

Dr Summon Chomchai of Siriraj Hospital's Preventive and Social Medicine Department said the elderly, children, and those with heart and respiratory diseases were most at risk from the heavy air pollution. 

The worries expressed by the doctors come in the wake of a warning by an air-pollution watchdog led by former Bangkok Governor Bhichit Ratakul. 

Bichit recently filed a lawsuit with the Administration Court against the Pollution Control Department and the Bangkok Mass Transport Authority for failing to control air pollution. 

The potential peril of the smog, however, has received scant attention from foreign media agencies that are often quick to highlight Malaysia’s perennial problems with the haze. 

Perhaps, like most of the locals, they could have become immune to it. 

M. Veera Pandiyan is Editor, Asia News Portal, based in Bangkok (e-mail: veera@nationgroup.com )  

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