Unseen Thailand – a practical guide Aabout how to avoid a trash burning epidemic

by Expat Life

by Ken Drew

  1.  My expat experience with trash burning
  2.  A Thai community’s struggle with trash burning 
  3.  Dioxin – The most toxic chemical known to science
  4.  Take action NOW!

  1.  My expat experience with trash burning

I am a Westerner who has been living in Thailand since 2012. Yesterday’s laundry day was a day just like any other. After pulling my laundry out of the washing machine, I hung it up to dry outside. Moments later, a neighbour lit a mixed pile of their trash on fire. 

The Thai government and environmental organisations refer to this as “open burning” which doesn’t give justice to the irreversible and life -threatening genetic damage this causes people and wildlife nor does it describe the contents of what’s being illegally incinerated. 

It’s kinda like how the word “cramp” doesn’t quite capture the acute pain of one’s muscle involuntarily contracting. I think that if authorities and media would alert us to the serious threat to public health that creating a fog of smoke from burning plastics, tampons, clothes and electronics creates, then “rubbish burning” or “trash burning” would be more descriptive, alarming and honest. 

Most every Thai I know outside of Bangkok dries their clothes outside on the balcony of their apartment like me. It makes sense because that daily 35C afternoon is cheaper than using a dryer. Moreover, using a dryer can gradually damage your clothes. It’s around this time of the evening when an orchestra of smoke fogs the city and countryside. If you were in a plane looking down, the landscape would look probably like the entrance of a temple with that long ash -filled thing that Buddhists plant their smoking incense stick into. My trash -smoke- smothered Thai city never fails in making my clothes smell like it. Sometimes I wonder why I bother buying lavender -scented fabric softener.

2. A Thai community’s struggle with trash burning

I am not the only one suffering. Not even close. A village of Thai’s in Pathum Thani have recently complained to Thailand’s Independent News Network (INN) this year about trash burning in hopes of making trash burning go public because locals in their area are breathing in heavy black smoke every day. They are forced to breathe in smoke and dust every day just like me and now all have developed allergies. The locals have tried closing all the windows and doors, but the burnt smell still travels through the air conditioners and small cracks. I have this problem too! Just like my clothes, their homes smell burnt all the time.

Pollution is a lot like smoking cigarettes. People all have different tolerances to smell and various genetic durability to cell destroying chemicals. Your cells are dying every day. It’s okay because they are replaced by other cells. Doctors believe smoking causes lung cancer by damaging the cells that line the lungs. Over time, the damage causes cells to act abnormally and eventually cancer may develop. It’s different for everyone.

Dirty air affects us whether or not it has a pleasant smell like with merit making incense or temporary stress -reducing benefits like with smoking cigarettes. 

Absorbing toxic and cancer -causing chemicals into your lung tissue, blood, heart and brain is always going to lead to bad news. This begs the question: why is it punishable up to 5,000 Baht in Thailand to smoke a cigarette in a school, but it’s perfectly okay to contaminate the air, classrooms, children’s bedrooms and entire communities with carcinogenic smoke from burning batteries, electronics, clothes and household waste? 

3. Dioxin – the most toxic chemical known to science

Do you know how widespread trash burning is in Thailand? If you look at the map below, you can see it’s clearly an epidemic. This map does not refer to the burning of sticks and leaves. It’s about the burning of Thailand’s filthy, bacteria -ridden, foul smelling trash. In the map below, picture (A) shows you how many thousands of tons (kt/y) of household solid waste (HSW) is made while (B) shows you how much of that waste was burned. 

It’s important to note that the toxic smog created from burning garbage doesn’t stay in the residential area it was burned. Pollution doesn’t have boarders. The wind blows it around Thailand into your home. This is why Bangkok has dangerously high annual PM2.5 pollution levels – there’s no wind to blow their toxic PM2.5 pollutants to other provinces or countries. In fact, it takes less than a week for air pollution to travel with the worldly winds from China to the Western U.S.A  and also from the East U.S.A. to Europe!   

In 2018, a collaborative environmental report from Thailand’s top universities titled Assessment of air pollution from household solid waste Open burning in Thailand revealed that a whopping 53.7%  of trash is burned on or outside the residential property – an equivalent of 3.43 million tons a year of trash being turned into toxic ash. 

It gets worse! In addition, to Thai citizens burning their trash on their land, the government is doing it too. It was found that 0.66 million tons a year of solid waste collected by the local administrative onsorganisations (LAO) was burned in open areas and, thus, was not eliminated properly. Hence, the total amount of trash being carelessly burned from these two sources was 4.09 million tons a year.  

The reported mentioned the atmospheric gases that cause climate change, but they failed to quantify the cancer -causing and hormone -disrupting deadly chemicals that are created by burning trash. Now we can get to the good stuff – Is trash smoke Ssexist? 

I’m not going to bore you with science. I’m writing this to spread awareness. Here’s what you gotta know – Dioxin. 

Dioxin is what we make when we burn white paper and PVC plastics (aka “The poison plastic” aka Plastic #3). Baby and Children toys are made from PVC because it’s a stuff and durable plastic. Plastic stickers are made from PVC too. Your blue plastic plumbing for drinking water and sewage is made from it too. It’s only carcinogenic, immune system killing and hormone disrupting when you burn it because it has chlorine. That’s what the “C” means in PVC. White paper is white because its bleached. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes Dioxins (there are many!)

Dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so -called “dirty dozen” – a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential.

Here’s the really important part!

Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half -life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years. In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher an animal is in the food chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins.

Do you remember that pollution map from earlier? Our air in Thailand is saturated with thousands of tons of persistent organic pollutants! The ones that are dioxins are passed on to developing foetus in pregnant mothers and they are the most sensitive to dioxin exposure. Newborn, with rapidly developing organ systems, may also be more vulnerable to certain effects according to the WHO.

Do you want children someday? Maybe you want a daughter? 

Unfortunately, a study from New Zealand, who suffers from dioxin poising from their chemical plants, suggests that men exposed to dioxin, a chemical once common in herbicides, may be less likely to father boys than peers who didn’t come in contact with this toxin. 

Men got to wait 7 to 11 years for the toxin to die, but women are able to take it out. Don’t celebrate just yet. Dioxins are excreted in breast milk and nursing infants are at high -risk for exposure because of their immature central nervous and immune systems. We typically get dioxin from eating fish, eggs, dairy and meat because dioxins are fat -soluble, they bio accumulates and move up from smaller to larger organisms in the food chain. Levels in fish can be 100,000 times that of the surrounding water. This is why it’s important to not burn trash. It not only ends up in our lungs but also in high concentrations in the animals we eat.

4. Take Aaction NOW! 

Are you ready to make a difference? As expats, we can educate our hosts and urge them to support local NGO – The Thailand clean air network’s clean air bill, which the House Speaker last month agreed could be processed to become law if there are at least 10,000 signatures to support it, which is required by the current constitution. 

More information at https://www.thaicleanair.org/

And remember! The next time you smell the burning of trash the only think at risk isn’t the smell of your laundry on the clothesline. 

Ken Drew is an environmentalist from the USA who became passionate about air pollution issues while interning as a researcher on waste-to-energy incineration technology for Greenpeace in 2013. In 2015, he led a successful 7-month online campaign with Thai alumni that saved students from their high school burning its waste. He believes that everyone has a right to clean air that we have a responsibility to help each other, regardless of nationality, to create clean air cities because pollution doesn’t have boarders. Ken is currently seeking a bilingual Thai national to help him protect a UNESCO heritage park in Thailand from littering and air pollution. If interested, please contact him at…

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