Govt Warning: Chiang Mai Can Damage Your Health
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Govt Warning: Chiang Mai Can Damage Your Health

By LAWI WENG Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Thousands of people in and around Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, have been affected by respiratory infections and other health problems this month, due to the air pollution, which is four times that of the Thai capital, Bangkok.

Another major town, Chiang Rai, was on Tuesday shrouded in a brown haze with air pollution five times worse than the capital, according to the Pollution Control Department.

Many residents in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, have been affected by respiratory infections and other health problems this month, due to the air pollution.  (Photo:
Authorities have recently recommended locals in the tourist-oriented city of Chiang Mai to wear surgical masks if they are cycling or driving motorbikes and advised people not to jog or partake of outdoor exercise or allow children to play in parks.

Health authorities have issued warnings in the local press warning that the current haze could cause heart problems and respiratory diseases, and exacerbate conditions such as asthma and bronchitis. The air pollution could also act as a catalyst for throat and lung cancer, doctors say.

Visibility in the center of Chiang Mai—ironically nicknamed “The Rose of the North” by travel guidebooks—is around 200 meters in the streets. The surrounding mountains—which trap the pollution into the urban valley—cannot be seen from the city. The city’s landmark, Doi Suthep temple, located on a hillside overlooking the city, can be made out faintly at night through the haze, but only when its lights are on.

Staff at The Irrawaddy, which is located in an office block in the city center, have also been affected. One senior staff member who has worn a surgical mask at work for the past two days, said that when he went to the hospital, he was told hundreds of other people had come in that day with respiratory infections.

“I feel really bad and I can hardly breathe,” he said, adding that he had red irritated eyes, a sore throat, a runny nose and a slight headache. 

In the Thai-Burmese border town of Tachilek, a Burmese resident said that she felt sick and that the town was becoming hazier every day. She said that many people in the town had respiratory diseases, especially children and the elderly, and had gone to clinics and hospitals for treatment.

The traditional rural method of slash-and-burn farming, whereby fields are burned by farmers in the dry season between February and April, so that the ashes fertilize the fields while they lie fallow, is responsible for the greater part of the pollution.

According to local government data, the toxic levels of nitrogen dioxide—mainly caused by emissions from factories and motor vehicles—are fairly high in the mountainous northern Thai region. However, the levels of PM-10, a particulate matter of tiny dust particles caused by burning waste, are at a potentially fatal level.

In Europe and the US, the air pollution in an urban area is considered “serious” if PM-10 levels reach 50 micrograms per cubic meter. On Tuesday, PM-10 dust particle levels hit 181.4 in Chiang Mai, 243.7 in Chiang Rai and 236.1 in rural Phayao district. 

This year is by no means extraordinary for air pollution in the northern province. In the particularly hazy dry season of 2007, the PM-10 dust particle level in Chiang Mai peaked at a tear-jerking high of 303.9 on March 14, dispelling myths about the northern capital’s reputation as a charming mountain retreat with a healthy ethnic vitality. 

According to Earthoria, a travel and lifestyle Web site, even in supposedly “clean” countries such as New Zealand, as many people die every year from air pollution as from traffic accidents.

How has Chiang Mai’s atmosphere been allowed to deteriorate to such polluted levels? We are (literally) dying to find out.

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Debbie Rideout Wrote:
I really appreciated your article more than I can say. You accurately captured the haze in a good quality picture. I would add something of importance. The slash and burning is not the main problem, it is the problem of the northern people burning all kinds of trash and rubbish all across the city of Chiang Mai. Slash and burning is a problem but more so is the toxic fumes from the burning of rubbish which is allowed and not controlled by the city government. Thank you for your article.

Peter Wrote:
We have moved to Hang Dong area and have fled to the south to escape the foul air. Every day you can see people burning large areas all along the Canal Rd, and nobody seems to be doing anything about stopping the burning. The reason? Simply it is a problem beyond the capabilities of officials. How tragic for the people of Chiang Mai, especially the old, infirm, children, and those with respiratory problems.

Is there some campaign going on to seriously address this problem? I would like to take part/play a role if there is.

John Wrote:
Would be great if we could email bomb some of the government officials with this problem - anyone have the correct email to start the email bomb? Not like they would care, but who knows? Thais hate foreigners and Thais that complain to much and they sometimes act to shut us up.

Cliff Wrote:
Hi Claude, I think Ranong is best place for someone who wants a healthy environment and healthy living style. I have lived there for 3 years in Ranong where you can breathe fresh air from the sea and fresh foods from local firms and sea. Living expenses are cheap and the quality is good, too. You can teach English language to local wealthy children for extra money.

DB Wrote:
This is a large regional problem for sure but we know we must all act locally and not just accept a laissez-faire attitude. This acting locally has a been a mantra for years for sustainable eduction.

Where are the local community leaders who should be practicing ethical leadership and showing us all that change can come about rapidly enough when enough individuals have the will to do something about a tough but winnable problem? Our youth deserve strong, ethical and courageous individuals as leaders who stand up and go against popular practice. The solution is in leadership and leadership is not just practiced by elected officials.

Bravo for this article. The yearly problem is highlighted "front and center" as it should be. We all breathe this air. Let us hope that next year at this time, Irrawaddy writes an article about courageous and ethical individuals who have done something amazing about the problem. Celebrate the small victories by individuals and more and more people will join in until there is real change!

Claude Wrote:
I have lived in Mae Rim for five years. I came here to retire in a healthy surrounding. Today this dream is becoming a nightmare. Every night people are clearing land by burning dry grass. Nobody says anything; even the local authorities seem to be totally incompetent. People are still burning without being worried. I am thrown into confusion as I would like to do something about it.

RP Wrote:
The reason? The incompetence of the Thai local and central governments. But don't worry if tourists start making a big deal of it, the greedy businessmen will be surprisingly quick. Another reason is the lack of education and knowledge by teachers. It is also called incompetence. When you educate people and fine people for burning rubbish or land the problem disappears in weeks.

Inderjeet Mani Wrote:
I am so glad you have drawn attention to the severity of the problem. As a retiree who happens to be asthmatic, I have had to abandon my home in Chiang Mai until the air quality improves substantially. The big question is why the authorities aren't doing more about it.

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