Smoke from the fires in northern Thailand is making it hard to breathe, and at least one hospital in Chiang Mai says it has reached “full service capacity” as people have respiratory problems from air pollution. breathable air.
Air pollution is a long-standing problem in Thailand, usually caused by heavy road traffic in the case of the capital Bangkok.
But this year, pollution levels have increased across the country due to wildfires and widespread crop burning during the annual slash and burn season between December and April.
For at least seven consecutive days, Chiang Mai has ranked as the most polluted city in the world according to forecasts by the Air Quality Index (AQI), a Swiss company that tracks air quality in the whole world. Chiang Mai is a major tourism and transport hub in Thailand, attracting millions of international visitors each year – and April is nearing the end of the peak tourist season.
K Preecha, a local cafe owner in Chiang Mai, told CNN the air had become “increasingly polluted and dangerous to breathe” since January and was now “strong and smelly”.
“We are already in April, but the situation has gotten worse – there is no improvement and a lot of people have gotten so sick,” he said. “It’s scary to think (of) breathing air that’s going to kill you.”
Satellite images taken and released by the Geoinformatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA), Thailand’s space agency, in late March showed 5,572 fire hotspots – “the highest in 5 years “, said the organization.
According to a Thai government statement released on March 28, air pollution now affects 1.7 million people across the country, including people with respiratory illnesses, skin irritations and eye infections.
In Chiang Mai, more than 12,000 patients sought medical treatment for respiratory problems between January and March, according to a statement from Maharaj Nakorn Hospital, part of Chiang Mai University.
But the hospital is struggling to cope with the massive number of people seeking help for illnesses including asthma, upper respiratory infections, conjunctivitis and emphysema, a serious lung condition that causes shortness of breath.
For several days last week, a fire ripped through Nakhorn Nayok in central Thailand, engulfing two mountains and spreading to Khao Nang Dam, a forest park. Helicopters were dispatched to douse the flames, which were finally extinguished on Sunday.
“The smoke crisis has occurred in all northern regions, especially in Chiang Mai where the air pollution (levels) of PM 2.5 is continuously increasing and it has affected people’s health,” said said the Maharaj Nakorn Hospital statement.
Fine particles, or PM 2.5, consist of microscopic particles whose diameter is less than 2.5 micrometers. The particles, which include pollutants such as sulphate, nitrates and carbon black, are considered particularly harmful because they are small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and cardiovascular system. Exposure to these particles has been linked to lung and heart problems and can impair cognitive and immune functions.
“There are patients who cannot be admitted for medical treatment…due to the continued full capacity of patient wards,” the statement from Maharaj Nakorn Hospital added.
However, Pannawich Chantaklang, a doctor at Nakornping Hospital in Chiang Mai told CNN that the number of patients suffering from air pollution-related illnesses had been “high” but was considered normal for this time of year.
“We haven’t been overwhelmed, we can still receive more patients but the number of people receiving treatment related to air pollution is higher,” he said.
“According to the statistics we have collected over the last 3 years, the number should gradually decrease as we approach the end of April… (but) we will continue to be vigilant in monitoring the situation.”
Medical experts and health organizations have documented the harmful effects and lasting impact of air pollution.
The WHO said air pollution remains a “concerning public health problem, with the potential to cause premature death”.
A 2022 study by scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London also found that air pollution poses a greater threat to life expectancy than smoking.