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Fighting the harmful health effects of air pollution in Thailand

In an age where 8.4 million deaths occur every year as a result of air pollution, residents in major Thai cities are no stranger to the harmful health effects of smog. Commonly known as the “silent killer”, smog kills 50,000 people in Thailand every year.

At the heart of air pollution is the invisible air pollutant, PM 2.5. Measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, particulate matter (PM) 2.5 is small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs, allowing harmful chemicals to reach our internal organs, thus increasing the risk of a whole host of serious illnesses such as cancer, respiratory diseases, heart disease, and more.

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The good news here, however, is that while air pollution remains a top issue in Thailand, the country has taken huge steps to combat smog. For instance, one of the largest causes of air pollutants in Bangkok was diesel buses. Over the past ten years, a number of initiatives have seen buses and cars quickly transition to natural gas, which the nation possesses in greater quantity than oil. From a personal perspective, there are also many things you can do to combat the health risks caused by air pollutants, a key few of which are outlined in this week’s article.

Sources of air pollution in Thailand

50,000 people die prematurely in Thailand every year as a result of exposure to the poisonous gases that make up smog. These include:

  • Carbon monoxide: an odorless gas found in cigarette smoke, wood-burning stoves, internal combustion vehicle exhaust, portable stoves, electrical generators, etc.
  • Carbon dioxide: though living things produce carbon dioxide when they breathe, it is considered a pollutant when associated with cars, planes, power plants, and other activities involving the burning of fossil fuels.
  • Sulfur dioxide: a toxic byproduct of coal burning.
  • Nitrogen oxides: these gases are usually produced during the combustion of fuels, generally at high temperatures, such as in car engines.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOC): sources include the burning of fuels such as gas, as well as tobacco products. They also come from household/personal care items like hair spray, paints, varnishes, cleaning agents, etc.
  • Lead: an elemental heavy metal; major sources include motor vehicles and industrial sources like lead-acid battery manufacturers.

Generally speaking, major cities in poor and developing countries tend to have more air pollution than cities in developed nations. For instance, the world’s most polluted cities include Karachi, Cairo, New Delhi, and Beijing. That said, a number of developed cities (e.g. Hong Kong, London, New York) also have worrying levels of pollution.

The smog situation in Thailand’s capital city

Compared to other major tourist cities like Amsterdam and Tokyo, results from a recent study found that Bangkok outperforms 28 of the world’s global cities in terms of their Air Quality Index (AQI).

As of the time of writing this article, Bangkok’s overall AQI rating is “moderate”, which means that air quality is generally acceptable, but may still pose a moderate health concern for a small portion of the population (i.e. those with respiratory illnesses).

Bangkok AQI

Source: World Air Quality

Certain areas, however, registered an “unhealthy for sensitive groups” rating, meaning those with a greater risk of developing air pollution-related illnesses (more on this below) should exercise additional precaution to avoid air pollutants. To learn more about AQI ratings, please refer to the table below:

AQI table

Source: AirNow

Short and long term health risks of air pollution

Exposure to harmful air pollutants can lead to an increased risk of developing short and long term conditions, both categories of which are detailed below:

Short term health effects

Short term health effects, which are temporary in nature, include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Bronchitis
  • Discomfort and irritation to the nose, throat, eyes and/or skin
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Long term health effects

Long term health effects can last for an entire lifetime, or for a few years. These include:

  • Heart disease
  • Lung cancer
  • Respiratory disease
  • Long-term damage to vital organs (e.g. kidneys, liver)
  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Some scientists believe it can cause birth defects

It is worth noting here that certain groups of people are more susceptible to the above mentioned short and long term health effects. These include younger children and the elderly, whose immune systems are generally weaker than teenagers and adults. Those with lung disease, asthma, or heart disease should also take special care to avoid air pollutant exposure.

What you can do to mitigate the health risks of air pollution

The myriad of health risks associated with exposure to smog may seem scary, but on a positive note there are a number of things you can easily do to mitigate them.

Avoid heavy traffic

Regular time spent in close proximity to car and truck traffic has been found to increase the negative health outcomes related to air pollutants. Try commuting at irregular hours, and avoid heavily trafficked roads as much as you can. When sitting in a car during rush hour, be sure to set the fan on recirculate, and don’t forget to close the car windows.

Switch to non-toxic household and personal care items

To eliminate harmful air pollutants from your indoor breathing space, opt for non-toxic household and personal care items like VOC-free cleaners and aerosols. Certain commercial air fresheners should also be avoided.

Healthy eating

Did you know that a diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3s can help mitigate the harmful health effects of air pollution? The idea behind this is that a nutrient rich diet can play a pivotal role in strengthening our immune systems. While changes won’t happen overnight, by adopting a healthier diet your body will eventually develop greater immunity and become less vulnerable to contracting illnesses caused by air pollutants.

Wear a mask

An important thing to note here is that not all masks offer sufficient protection against air pollutants. Paper dust masks are largely useless in this respect, but HEPA filter masks can be very effective in limiting exposure. Masks are often assigned a protection factor. For example, an N95 mask is assigned a protection factor of 5, meaning that it can filter out all but 5 percent of particles.

Seeking healthcare in Thailand

Should you or your family members develop any air pollution-related illness, it’s important that you are aware of your treatment options and the best facilities for care in Thailand. While healthcare in Thailand is generally cheaper than its neighbors Singapore, Hong Kong, and China, costs are increasing. If you do plan to seek care here, we highly recommend that you secure a robust private health insurance policy to offset your medical costs.

If you have any more questions, or would like to learn more about your health insurance options, contact us today.

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Content Strategist at Pacific Prime Thailand
Jessica Lindeman is a Content Strategist at Pacific Prime. She comes to work every day living and breathing the motto of "simplifying insurance", and injects her unbridled enthusiasm for health and insurance related topics into every article and piece of content she creates for Pacific Prime. When she's not typing away on her keyboard, she's reading poetry, fueling her insatiable wanderlust, getting her coffee fix, and perpetually browsing animal Instagram accounts.