If we can see a glimmer of positivity from the past year as the world grappled with the COVID-19 global pandemic, one can rank widespread acceptance of masks as a method to protect our health and those around us. Many of us have incredibly spent the last 12 months wearing facial masks outside of our home seven days a week. Young and old, we are all masked warriors doing our best to stay healthy. 2020 certainly saw the mask and mask accessory industry explode like never before. 2021 and it appears that necessity will continue long into the year. We have taken this step diligently as a way to help protect our health and halt the spread of COVID-19. What we have also accomplished by default is countless hours of cleaner air making its way into our lungs. The right mask that fits well helps protect us from Covid-19 and protects our lungs from the toxic pollutants that are in the air.
Over the past decade, I became uniquely and alarmingly acquainted with the hazards of air pollution on human health. Like a toxic friendship you just can’t shake, even short term exposure to dirty air lingers on the mind and manifests across the body with nagging coughs, dull headaches and irritation of eyes and throat. The worry of air pollution on our health over these past years became so great it yielded personal action for me. In the early 2010’s, I helped co-found an air pollution awareness and advocacy group called Care for Air. By 2016, my family had literally moved to another country, in large part, due to our search for cleaner, healthier air. I suspect we will not be alone in the years ahead to what may be a tidal wave of air pollution expatriates.
Today we know air pollution is on the rise globally. According to the World Health Organisation more than 80% of city residents around the world are exposed to particulate pollution at unsafe levels. Seven million people are killed prematurely each year by air pollution in both rich and poor countries. Sadly, Thailand is no stranger to air pollution and it’s not just Bangkok. Chiang Mai ranks among the top regions for exceedingly high levels of hazardous air. Saraburi, Chonburi and Samut Sakhon unfortunately also join this list. The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) by the University of Chicago shows long term exposure to fine particulate pollution is shortening the average Thai’s life expectancy by more than two years. In the most polluted areas that number grows to four years of reduced life expectancy. The AQLI found that 87% of Thailand’s 68 million residents are exposed to air pollution levels exceeding WHO guidelines. This public health crisis of dangerous and toxic air hits children, the elderly and the most vulnerable people hardest. It is estimated that 10-15% of children in Thailand suffer from asthma.
So, what is going on with Bangkok’s air? In recent years, there have been some improvements. Yet still the problem persists with air pollution levels reaching highest levels over the winter and drier months. Seasonal weather patterns and human activities combine to make the winter months here in Thailand particularly bad. Compounding that – Bangkok is not a very windy city. The lack of wind is problematic in the cooler months as PM 2.5 pollution particles build in the air and there is not enough wind to disperse them. The cooler temperatures cause an inversion effect which results in the air pollution stagnating for days at a time. Thailand’s air pollution problem comes from a combination of vehicular emissions, biomass burning, agriculture and industrial emissions, among other factors. Our location on our planet even plays a role in exacerbating this problem. A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill revealed that effectively where air pollution comes from is as important as how much is emitted. Air pollution generated in the areas closer to the equator where there is more heat and light yield more ozone than regions farther from the equator. That unfortunately puts SE Asia squarely in this hot zone.
Whether we know it or not, air pollution is shaping our lives. But we can get educated and take better ownership of the air we breathe to protect ourselves and to ensure we do not become major contributors. The problem of toxic air will not go away without sustained efforts – large and small. So, what can we do on an individual level to reduce our own personal air pollution footprint? Well a lot it turns out. Small changes at home snowball. The air around us improves and our example begins to set in motion a collective responsibility.
So, starting today, why not proudly become a clean air ambassador:
- Wheels matter:
Go on two wheels when possible! Bike around town if that is safe in your area. If you own a motorcycle or diesel car, consider switching on your next trade-in or purchase to a hybrid or petrol vehicle. In the meantime, reduce your emissions by ensuring your car isn’t the one idling for long periods in the driveway, at markets or school. For all vehicles, turn the engine off when not in motion.
When it comes to getting around, consider walking, biking, or public transport when possible.
- Check readings daily and avoid outdoor aerobic activities during peak air pollution times.
Air pollution levels tend to be highest during early morning and evening hours. Sadly, this is also when temperatures are most pleasant for outdoor exercise, especially when wearing a mask. Check air pollution readings via your phone app, like IQ Air or Air Visual, before taking that power walk or run outside.
- Become a compost convert! Dispose of garden waste eco-friendly
Learn how to compost and organise a neighbourhood composting group. Food from dinner leftovers to inedible waste like eggshells and garden waste can be composted which helps nourish the soil and in turn reduces what goes into landfills. Think it won’t make a difference, well, consider this: Organic waste (food and garden waste) in landfills generates methane which is a potent greenhouse gas. Compost can also capture and destroy a significant portion of industrial volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in contaminated air.
- Clean green air inside your home
For most of us, the majority of our time is spent indoors, whether at home, work or now virtual school. Indoor air it turns out is as polluted, sometimes more so, than outdoor air. The air inside is compromised by both external pollutants (PM 2.5, ozone) that come in through every window and open door, as well as indoor air generated toxins (benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, ammonia and trichloroethylene) from paints, varnish, leathers, plastics and more. These indoor air pollutants are linked to headaches, eye irritation, dizziness and more. The good news is we have some natural remedies at hand. The use of several plants can dramatically improve our indoor air.
NASA’s 1989 Clean Air Study set out to find the best ways to naturally clean the air in space stations. The result? They also determined the best plants to purify your indoor air at home. The Spider Plant, Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, Peace Lily, Dracaena and Chrysanthemum make great natural air filters and they are pretty hardy for those of us who are not natural green thumbs. NASA research suggests at least one plant per 100 square feet of home or work space.
Learn more about air pollution causes and solutions. Join clean air movements such as www.careforair.org. Sate safe and healthy from air pollution and Covid-19.