As the old adage goes: April showers bring May flowers. This, however, is not true for the 67 million people living in the beautiful Kingdom of Thailand.
For those residing and working in the popular centers of this country, April (and preceding months) brings a thick layer of smog and smoke that brings with it a real health threat.
Air pollution is no new phenomenon. It has plagued Western cities like LA, London and New York for years.
But many expats working and living in Thailand’s hubs seem to think these Thai cities experience worse air quality than usual, causing somewhat of a mass migration to other city centers in SE Asia during spring months.
But is there any truth in this? Is air quality bad in Thailand? Is it worse in Bangkok than London, or Rome, Paris or New York?
I want to know if living in Thailand is a recipe for a respiratory disease and poor general health as a result of air pollution. Or is it all roses, as we are often led to believe?
So I decided to investigate: to look at the facts, figures, daily statistics and make comparisons.
Let's get started.
Air Pollution in Thailand
Air pollution is not ugly, it’s downright dangerous. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that each year, 2 million people die prematurely from the poisonous gases that make up smog.
- sulfur dioxide: a byproduct of coal burning
- carbon monoxide: which can be found in car exhaust or the byproducts of appliances that burn fuel
- carbon dioxide: found naturally, but has increased due to car exhaust and assisted global warming
- nitrogen oxides: a byproduct of combustion from power plants, integral in the formation of acid rain
- volatile organic compounds: solvents in household products that evaporate and cause health issues
- particulates: the dark soot from air pollution that sticks to buildings
- ozone: in the atmosphere, it protects us- at ground level, toxic
- chlorofluorocarbons: the gas used in aerosol cans that is harmful to the ozone layer
- hydrocarbons: release carbon monoxide when burned or are released in the air, leading to smog
- lead/heavy metals: dispersed into the air through aerosols, fly ash and exhaust fumes
And it’s not just breathing problems that plague those in areas with high air pollution: symptoms can range from chest pain, headaches, nausea and increased sensitivity to allergens to aggravated heart disease, reproductive / neurological disorders and even cancer.
When discussing air quality and air pollution, the amount of particulates in the atmosphere is of the utmost importance, as they generally have the most adverse effects on human health.
The World Health Organization has isolated PM10 and PM2.5 as the most detrimental to human health (PM10 being particulate matter 10 micrometers or less, PM2.5 being particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less). So I'll mostly refer to these two factors in my comparisons.
How Bad is the Air Pollution in Bangkok?
At the time of writing Bangkok was reporting a real-time air quality index (AQI) of 93, which is reported as ‘Moderate.’ In comparison, London’s AQI was listed as 70, which is considered ‘moderate’ as well. Quite a difference in those numbers, but the moderate band is broad.
When I checked back today, however, the AQI was 106, reported as ‘Unhealthy' for sensitive groups.
It is worthwhile to note that areas of Bangkok register much higher on the scale, and much higher. It does depend where you are.
Samut Prakan measured in at a staggering 140. Northeastern Bangkok registered at 114.Both fall into the category of “unhealthy” for sensitive populations. At the other end of the scale, Pathum Thani registered a healthy 32.
When we look at Bangkok PM10 levels vs. other major cities, Bangkok (overall) is quite moderate in the grander scheme of things. This correlates with the first Bangkok AQI graph above, but provides further evidence that it is the PM 2.5 in Bangkok that should concern us most.
What's the AQI in Popular Beach Locations?
Resort and party paradise Phuket was not measured, but nearby neighbor, Surat Thani, home to the likes of Khanom, Samui and Koh Phangan, registered at an impressive ‘38,’ which is considered ‘good.’
It seems that a trip to the beach is most certainly good for your health.
In comparison, Los Angeles, California registered at 50 today, still considered ‘good.’
Areas around Chonburi and Pattaya registered at a very high 112, which is definitely considered ‘unhealthy’ for sensitive groups.
Similarly, Chiang Mai — Thailand’s second largest city, located in the North — registered at 108, most definitely ‘unhealthy.’ So much for it being the home to healthy expat bike riders!
For comparison’s sake, I also looked into the AQIs of New York, Berlin and Rome and found some surprising results.
Areas around Manhattan, NYC register anywhere from 20 to 40, which is considered ‘good.’ Central Rome registers at 104 – ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups.’ Berlin comes in at 36, which is also considered ‘good.’
How Polluted is Chiang Mai?
Another huge contributor to Thailand’s air pollution is its frequent practice of agricultural burning. This has a debilitating effect in Northern Thailand, which is home to many agricultural regions, as well as the urban hub of Chiang Mai.
In the Spring months, from February to May, farmers enthusiastically burn fields to make room for new crops, pushing the amount of particulate matter in the air to unacceptable and unsafe levels (> 120 μg/m3).
As farmers continue to burn, haze from Chiang Mai’s agricultural regions, transboundary haze from Myanmar and haze from Indonesia all combine to create the perfect storm for residents of Northern Thailand, who report an increase in hospital visits, respiratory issues, pneumonia and asthma cases.
Should People Be Concerned About Air Pollution in Thailand?
It is evident that higher populated areas of Thailand are much more prone to high levels of air pollution and potential health problems.
Though AQIs in Thailand range from the mid 20s to nearly 150, it is clear that there are more healthy places to live than others.
A study on air pollution and mortality between 1999 and 2008 concluded the following:
We found that all air pollutants had significant short-term impacts on non-accidental mortality. An increase of 10 μg/m3 in PM10, 10 ppb in O3, 1 ppb in SO2 were associated with a 0.40% (95% posterior interval (PI): 0.22, 0.59%), 0.78% (95% PI: 0.20, 1.35%) and 0.34% (95% PI: 0.17, 0.50%) increase of non-accidental mortality, respectively.
O3 air pollution is significantly associated with cardiovascular mortality, while PM10 is significantly related to respiratory mortality.
In general, the effects of all pollutants on all mortality types were higher in summer and winter than those in the rainy season.
So the rainy season is actually the best time to be in Thailand, generally. And the over-arching fact is that pollution is affecting mortality rates, particularly in the red and blue areas of the map.
Moving out of the city centers might offer a reprise for those who suffer from pollution related health problems, though some areas off the coast of Thailand are just as, if not more, polluted.
Moving to the islands would probably be a healthier move as there is less industrialization, less people and fewer cars and motorbikes.
It really is hit and miss though. Below the map shows a couple of dangerous areas of Bangkok in red, surrounded by a mix of moderate and healthy areas.
There's a mix of moderate and healthy up north in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, with Nan fairing. You'll see it's low-moderate down there in Surathani, and high moderate over there in Khon Kaen. Of course time of day and weather are key influencing factors over the numbers.
In fact, if we take Thailand overall, we get a very different picture:
Those living in urban centers in Thailand have cause for concern as economic growth in the country has been prioritized over environmental issues, the greatest of which is clean air and water.
Industrial growth has supported the developing nation, but at an enormous cost, particularly to those in the Bangkok metropolitan area, which is where 20% of the country’s pollution is concentrated and where over 65% of the nation’s emissions originate.
Lack of regulation and frequent dumping has led to a rapidly worsening situation. The World Bank estimated that air pollution related deaths in Thailand have risen nearly 20,000 in the past 20 years.
In Bangkok, particulate matter from vehicle emissions is at an all time high and routinely exceeds the national safety standard, which is 50 μg/m3 annually and 120 μg/m3 within a 24-hour period.
Note that this is in absolute contrast to articles such as that in Coconuts Bangkok that report Bangkok to be one of the ‘cleanest’ cities to live in. Provincially speaking, Bangkok is a huge area of land, and perhaps overall it ranks fairly ‘cleanly’ in comparison to others, but certain parts, particularly central Bangkok and the industrial areas like Samut Prakan, are heavily polluted.
In coastal regions of Thailand like Rayong, economic development has spurred the use of over 73 million tons of chemicals (including dangerous volatile organic compounds) each year. The use of VOCs can contribute to severe neurological and reproductive disorders.
What is Thailand Doing to Combat Air Pollution?
While there has been some regulation in the creation of the Pollution Control Department, initiatives have been slow to take hold.
There is a movement to adopt more environmentally friendly cars and a push to improve infrastructure for public transportation.
Initiatives from the Air Quality Control Program attempt to implement emission standards for used and new vehicles, inspection and maintenance programs for cars, roadside inspections and traffic management.
Currently, most cars, trucks and motorbikes in Thailand meet the national standards for acceptable pollution levels, though AQIs in Thai cities are still quite high.
There are a few small wins: the Air Quality Control Program boasts the establishment of the national ambient air quality monitoring network, a phase out of lead in gasoline, ongoing improvements in vehicle emission standards and the control of power plant based sulfur dioxide emissions.
Still, there is more to do to counter the country’s continued and largely unrestrained industrial rat race.
How Does Thailand Stack Up Against the Rest of the World?
Environmentalists often question the stats coming from official Thai sources, so when analyzing this issue it is important to look at the data from as many sources as possible.
The World Health Organization has released a report that reports ambient air pollution concentration in cities.
For comparisons, sake, I’ll review the United States’ emission levels, as well as those of well populated European cities, and of course Thailand.
- The US reports an annual concentration of PM2.5 as 9.7 and PM10 as 16.
- The UK reports an annual concentration of PM2.5 as 13.3 and PM10 as 19.6.
- Italy reports annual concentration of PM2.5 as 22.7, PM10 as 32.
- Thailand reports annual PM2.5 as 22.4 and PM10 as 41.4.
- Germany reports at PM2.5 at 16.1 and PM10 at 21.7.
As you can see, Thailand’s concentrations of particulate matter do not vary immensely from that of Italy, which could sort of surprise residents of both.
However, most American and European based cities report a much lower amount of particulate matter (both PM2.5 and PM10) than Thailand does, meaning that those who immigrate from the West to Thailand’s inviting cities are subject to a much higher level of air pollution than they are probably used to.
So Tell Me TTL, Where is the Healthiest Place to Live in Thailand?
While air pollution levels around Thailand vary greatly, it is undeniable that lack of regulation and wavering commitment to environmental issues are debilitating to those who live in urban centers or who work in industrial occupations.
Springtime in Thailand brings agricultural regeneration, but also immense amounts of smoke and smog that can drive foreigners from cities like Chiang Mai.
While the coastal or island regions in Thailand have much cleaner air, it may only be comparable to levels in major US and European cities. So unfortunately, if you’re looking for a breath of fresh air, Thailand may be the answer – but only metaphorically.
But to put that in context, you won't be any worse off than living back home, if you're from a city that is.
Those seeking to live in the North would do well to live in the likes of Nan or Pai. Even Lampang is more moderate than Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, but still not low pollution.
Down South, anywhere in Surathani isn't a bad bet. Samui residents will be pleased to hear that, I'm sure. Chonburi (the province containing Pattaya and Jomtien) is on a par with Bangkok I'm afraid.
Khon Kaen is getting worse but still considered moderate. Further into Isaan, things get better in the smaller provinces like Kalasin and Roi Et.
Bangkok-wise, Pathum Thani is a good call. If that's too far out, Huay Kwang, Ratchada or Pharam 9 areas are moderate for air pollution and would be safer than Asok or other central areas. The problem is that many areas fail to report (perhaps they don't have the technology in place) data in Bangkok, so it can be difficult to access information for specific locations.
If you’re interested in checking the AQI in your area, refer to this website.