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Smog-choked Bangkok struggles to improve air quality

Measures include restrictions on trucks, tighter inspections of factories, possible car ban

BANGKOK -- Toxic smog has been cloaking the cities of the Asia-Pacific region recently, and Thailand's capital is no exception, pushing authorities to implement measures to reduce the level of harmful particles known as PM2.5.

Protesters wearing surgical masks marched to Government House on Thursday to demand that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and his government tackle the air pollution problem more seriously. They held up signs reading, "Right to clean air is a human right" and "People before polluters."

In Bangkok, the most serious pollutant is PM2.5, particles 2.5 micrometers or smaller. They can lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory and heart ailments. 

The sky turns from blue to gray from dust during Thailand's dry season, which starts in November and ends around mid-March. Lack of rain allows the particles to drift about in the air instead of falling to the ground and being washed into the sewage system. Lack of wind in the dry season tends to prevent the dusty air from flowing off the city's sky.

The government's Pollution Control Department has set the safe limit of PM2.5 at 50 micrograms per cubic meter. From the beginning of the year to Thursday, Bangkok's daily average level exceeded the limit for 11 of 23 days, according to air quality monitoring app AirVisual. The highest level recorded during the period was 79 micrograms per cubic meter on Jan. 20.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration decided to close 437 city schools for a day on Wednesday, because of poor air quality. The Tourism Authority of Thailand is considering canceling the annual Amazing Thailand Marathon Bangkok 2020 scheduled for Feb. 2. 

The problem has grown as the nation's booming economy has brought more cars to the streets of Bangkok. Awareness of the problem has risen as more people suffer from pollution-induced allergies. According to local hospital chain Samitivej, 10-15% of children in Thailand suffer from asthma, and the number is rising. 

In the same season last year, the Thai government tried to tame the situation by spraying water into the air from small jets and on the ground by firetrucks. However, the move was considered just a show ahead of general elections in March 2019.

The Prayuth administration wants to tackle the situation more forcefully this year. On Jan. 21, the cabinet approved 12 measures to reduce air pollution. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said 76% of PM2.5 is caused by vehicle traffic. Agricultural and industrial emissions are other major factors.

The measures include only allowing trucks to enter central Bangkok every second day in February, urging voluntary restraint on using personal cars, ramping up exhaust inspections for factories and closing them down if they fail to comply, and prohibiting biomass burning around Bangkok.

The Thai government may implement more stringent measures if the situation doesn't improve. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he is considering imposing a ban on personal car use. "If the dust levels rise to more than 100 micrograms per cubic meter, the government will take over all the work and everyone will be affected," said the prime minister. "Is that what we want? Do we really have to go that far?" 

Although the city has expanded its Skytrain rail system and subways, many Bangkokians still rely on their cars to commute. The proposed ban would adversely impact the kingdom's economy. It might also slow down demand for cars and auto parts, damaging the Thai auto industry, which accounts for around 10% of the country's gross domestic product.

The private sector is responding to prevent the harsher measures. According to the Federation of Thai Industries, the auto industry agreed to inspect 60,000 cars in Bangkok and its vicinity for free. It attributed debased engine oil and faulty auto parts as sources of PM2.5. State oil company PTT decided to halve the price of its engine oil products for inspected cars. Car and auto parts manufacturers will give 20% discounts for parts that improve the air quality of car exhaust.

Thailand is not the only country in the Asia-Pacific region suffering from poor-quality air. New Delhi was labeled in November as another city with extreme pollution, as crop burning pushed the city's PM2.5 level to over 900. Massive forest fires are suffocating eastern Australia, killing millions of animals and delaying the Australian Open, one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world.

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