Air pollution in China is just the tip of an iceberg

When I say bad air, you may think of Beijing, China or New Delhi, India. You may imagine black smog with air masks, bottled oxygen, air filters, and air quality apps. Good news is the air pollution in those countries aren’t at their worst. Bad news is there are countries that have it worse. While Thailand’s air is yet to reach that point, clear air doesn’t mean clean air.

Isn’t it time that we deserve the right to know whether or not the air we breathe each day is safe enough, based on complete and accurate data?

PM2.5, or particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, is an air pollutant that has become an “invisible killer”. Because of their microscopic size, smaller than that of a red blood cell, they are able to penetrate directly into the human respiratory system, entering through the bloodstream. As you can imagine, this would cause a wide range of health issues, such as allergies, respiratory conditions, malformations, growth restrictions, and even cancer.

Currently, Thailand’s Pollution Control Department only provides 24-hour average air quality index (AQI) values for ground-level ozone (O³), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SOx), nitrogen oxide (NOx), and PM10 based on 61 monitoring stations across 29 provinces. However, only 19 of these stations in 14 provinces measure PM2.5 levels. In 2016, annual average PM2.5 concentrations in eight of these provinces are shown to exceed Thailand’s air quality standards of 25 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3), which is already 2.5 times higher than the WHO guideline of 10 μg/m3.

Air pollution has now become a greater threat to human health than Ebola and HIV, killing 6.5 million people every year. According to a UN report, 90% of these deaths occur in low to middle-income countries, with nearly two-thirds in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific. About 92% of the world’s population, or roughly 6.76 billion people, live in areas where air pollution levels exceed recommendation limits.

Although China often makes the headlines for bad air quality, several other countries are doing worse when it comes to PM2.5 levels. Data from the World Health Organization and International Energy Agency shows Saudi Arabia tops the chart with 108 μg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter). The air quality guideline from WHO recommends an annual average of no more than 10 μg/m3. Other countries with the highest levels of PM2.5 are Qatar, Egypt, Bangladesh, Kuwait, Cameroon, and United Arab Emirates.

While a big fraction of emissions in these Middle Eastern countries can be attributed to its oil industry, air pollution in nearby Africa does not have a point source, posing as a more subtle, yet serious and difficult issue to tackle. From burning of rubbish and indoor cooking from inefficient fuel stoves, to diesel electricity generators and petrochemical plants, pollutants in the region comes from a range of untraceable sources. Due to the lack of proper pollution management, not much is not known about Africa’s air quality and it is believed to be worse than initially presumed. In the continent alone, air pollution kills 712,000 people every year — more than 542,000 people from unsafe water, 391,000 from unsafe sanitation, and 275,000 from malnutrition.

Meanwhile, the WHO has found that India accounts for 13 of 20 of the most polluted cities in the world, holding a PM2.5 average of 153 μg/m3. With levels as high as that, approximately 4.4 million children in its capital, Delhi, live with irreversible lung damage. Furthermore, there has been an increase in premature and underweight babies, as well as those born with birth defects.

When zoomed out, China’s increasingly popular demand for expensive imported bottles of clean air, air masks, air filters, air pollution sensors and air quality apps are just the tip of the iceberg, showing just the surface of the actual scale of global air pollution. And even though deaths from air pollution has cost the global economy at least $225 billion in 2013, according to a study by The World Bank, plans for coal-fired power stations continue to expand in Southeast Asia.

Already, about 20,000 people in the region die every year due to coal emissions, and according to research by Harvard, this number is expected to increase to 70,000 if proposed plans for new power stations proceed. With power stations in Indonesia doubling in number from 147 to 323 stations, and Myanmar to grow five times from three to 16 stations, coal emissions in the region are projected increase 83% between 2011 and 2035. Thailand, too, would play a big part in this rapid increase, moving forward with expansions in several locations despite protests by residents and activists.

For these developing nations, environmental and health concerns surrounding bad air quality comes second to the economic success that causes it. For governments in countries like Thailand, commercial growth is the main priority, making space for industries and corporates and leaving little room for the well-being of the mass population. What has not been considered alongside these financial boom is the cost that comes with it, such as labor lost, medical expenses, environmental damages, and so on.

Will Thailand need to see thick smog before it takes action? Or will the “invisible killer” need to take more lives before it makes a change? You can act now, before Thailand’s air turns black?