Image credit: IQAir quality Chiang Mai, 1 April 2023. - Photo: 2023

Thailand: Chiang Mai Breaks Records

By Jan Servaes*

BRUSSELS, 9 April 2023 (IDN) — Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, is consistently cited as one of the best tourist destinations in the world. While Thailand ranks among the world’s best places to retire, Chiang Mai is also popular with digital nomads and backpackers from around the world.

Moreover, Chiang Mai is known as the vegetarian and even vegan capital of Asia, on top of the cultural attractions, elephants and the à gogo nightlife.

But Chiang Mai is also the most polluted region in the world for several weeks each year, with PM2.5 levels reaching 300 and more micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m³), much higher than cities like Mumbai, Lahore, Hanoi or Delhi which are usually mentioned in these lists.

Even tour operators are concerned about pollution as bookings are down 50%.

Every year worse instead of better

While the IQAir quality figures place a PM2.5 value above 100 in the ‘unhealthy’ category, northern Thailand has been significantly above that for some time. This means that anyone with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma is at high risk and should take appropriate steps to protect themselves.

Pollution levels reach their peak each year during ‘fire season’ (slash and burn), normally from February to April. According to data on the IQAir website, the air quality in Chiang Mai is getting worse, not better, every year.

This trend was not interrupted even during COVID-19, which brought most of the world to a standstill. Drastic measures necessary to prevent this trend from continuing are known but are not applied on a large scale.

The issue is complex and involves large-scale contract farming, deforestation and clear-cutting, and a host of socio-economic factors. The Charoen Pokphand Group (CP) is Thailand’s largest agribusiness and has invested in maize for its animal feed industry.

Referring to the document ‘Maize 2021’, CP states in The Bangkok Post that “since the severe haze crisis in 2015, it has joined all sectors of society to solve the problems that arise, and also realizes the importance of social and environmental responsibility.”

However, the Bangkok Post concludes that “no information was provided on the duration or results of any of the projects”.

The Thai government prefers to shift the blame towards neighbouring countries such as Laos and Myanmar, where the same practices take place. But it cannot be denied that the root cause lies in lax policies and lack of follow-up by corrupt police and government officials.

Chaicharn Pothirat, a pulmonary consultant and professor of medicine at Chiang Mai University, stated that the haze in Chiang Mai is seasonal, “but over the past 20 years, the intensity and duration have gotten progressively worse.” He also fears that even if the government imposed zero-burn regulations, people would continue to burn.

This is because some people cannot afford machines or believe, in the absence of education and information, that incineration is the fastest and best way. There are ‘solutions‘, but they are hardly applied.

The 2016 documentary ‘SMOKE: A Crisis in Northern Thailand, The Health Effects and a Solution’, by Marisa Marchitelli paints an accurate picture of the situation.

“I Can’t Breathe”

The combustion releases a variety of noxious fumes and pollution into the air. These are formed by the chemical reactions of toxic materials such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitric oxide (NOx). The combustion of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can further deteriorate air quality and thus living conditions.

The health effects of exposure to this smog can cause an increased risk of cancer, particularly that of the lungs, along with respiratory problems and skin irritation.

A report released by Greenpeace in February 2020 attributed 14,000 deaths in Thailand in 2020 to air pollution, a statistic Dr Rungsrit Kanjanavanit was not surprised to read.

As a cardiologist at Chiang Mai University, he has been raising awareness of the seriousness of the pollution problem for more than a decade.

“PM2.5 has more to do with adverse health effects because it is so small that it can enter the bloodstream similar to smoking,” said Dr Rungsrit in The Bangkok Post, adding that every 22μg/m³ of PM2.5 is equivalent to everyone – including newborns, the elderly – smoking one cigarette.

People who must continue to work and commute during these months may be at high risk of developing the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an umbrella term that encompasses many respiratory conditions such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, and other conditions that can lead to a reduction in complete lung function.

Aside from respiratory symptoms, the circulatory system can also be seriously affected due to the ability of PM2.5 in smoke and mist to enter the bloodstream and thus circulate throughout the body. This can cause an increase in cardiac problems, such as an increased risk of heart attack, as well as arrhythmias.

As a result, people with pre-existing conditions such as congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease are at particular risk when exposed to high levels of PM2.5.

Economic cost

A study conducted by the World Bank in 2017 found that the total economic cost of pollution to Thailand increased from 211 billion Thai Baht (6.9 billion USD) in 1990 to 871 billion Thai Baht (28.8 billion USD) in 2013. This shows that costs have quadrupled over the course of 23 years, as has the far-reaching impact of air pollution in the country.

Pollution from combustion also has an economic impact on Chiang Mai, highlighting the importance of a coordinated effort by governments, businesses, communities and individuals to address the problem of air pollution. As stated, the problem is complex and requires a multifaceted approach.

Tourists best postpone their trip for several months, says Dr Nitipatana, who works at Siriraj Hospital, because without action, the disease rates will only get worse. He added that no political party has prioritized the issue of air pollution in their campaigns leading up to the May 2023 general election.

He believes that the protection of the environment, especially the air, should be a promise to be made to the people by political parties. But that, too, remains to be seen. [IDN-InDepthNews]

*Jan Servaes is editor of the 2020 Handbook on Communication for Development and Social Change ( and co-editor of SDG18 Communication for All, Volumes 1 & 2, 2023

Image credit: IQAir quality Chiang Mai, 1 April 2023.

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