It rained last night and the temperature has dropped to wintery levels. As I was checking Facebook this morning before coming to work, I saw that a young intern who had been with us a few years ago had just posted, “So happy it rained, no pollution this year!”
There are a lot of misconceptions about the ever-alarming annual pollution likely to be heading our way in the coming weeks.
You watch the news and see talking heads waxing ignorance about how the pollution is coming over from Myanmar, blaming Shan State for most of our smog. You read blogs where people recall similar brown skies in days of yore, insisting that nothing much has changed, that it’s all quite normal. You follow angry expats on forums, outraged about how Thais don’t care about the pollution and that nothing is being done by authorities to combat the noxious haze. You talk to your friends who say that the miasma we take in with every breath doesn’t really harm them, what’s a watery eye or blocked nose now and then? You find yourself in conversations with people who are so angry at farmers in the highlands they think they should all be rounded up and jailed. You hear conversations where people discuss safety levels, and how we aren’t that far over it…surely. You sneer at conglomerates culpable for much of the burning while buying their products at Makro. You see girls on bikes wearing thin Hello Kitty masks, seemingly more as a fashion statement than any real shield against pesky particulates.
Most of us prefer not to deal with the frightening realities of the North’s foul months, instead figuratively holding our breaths as we move from aircon house to aircon car to aircon job until the rains come in a few months and we can all breathe again, forgetting about all the horridness, until next year.
Like many of you, I am an average person without much academic interest nor prowess; reading scientific journals, or researching data bores me into catatonia. I get my news in digestible bites and easy-listening soundbites. I am, however, fortunate enough that my job allows me to grill people. They do all the hard work, I listen, record and present it in a way that we can all, hopefully, consume and understand. And that is what I have done this month. I talked to Marisa Marchitelli, a film maker who was so concerned about her breathing problems that she began to do some reading. When that wasn’t giving her all the answers, she began talking to people, interviewing them, following them on their jobs, sitting in on their presentations and putting it all on film.
Marisa has spent a year of her own time and resources digging into all aspects of the northern pollution: health, environmental, economic and social impacts. And her message is not for the faint hearted. It is also very clear — we are all in trouble. And we are all culpable.
Winds from Myanmar account for only a fraction of the haze, we are the ones generating most of it. Yes, there were periods of time in the past when there was smog, but nothing near levels we have seen over the past decade. There are plenty of Thai people and Thai authorities who care deeply about this issue and are doing their very best to find solutions. Runny eyes and blocked nasal passages are only the tip of the medical iceberg of troubles caused by the smog, people are dying and the full effects will become clearer in years to come as more fall ill. Yes, the farmers are burning, but so are we in the city, we burn rubbish and brush and contribute with our cars and vehicles. For no discernable reason, Thailand’s safety standards are over twice as high as the World Health Organisation’s, so no, we are not anywhere near safety levels. If you want to point your fingers at conglomerates that is fine, but unless you boycott their products, make sure a few fingers are pointed right back at yourselves. And those cheap masks, they don’t work.
Please take the time to read this interview with Marisa and, as I did, educate yourselves on this most democratic of menaces. Unless you can afford to leave town for a few months every single year, you are as likely to fall victim as anyone else. This is not just an issue for authorities to combat, but for all of us to rise up and fight against.
Don’t burn, at all. Report any and every fire you see. Wear only the officially sanctioned masks. Make sure big businesses know of your displeasure by boycotting their products.
And regularly visit Marisa’s web site www.smokethedocumentary.com, a fantastic resource of movies, links, petitions and information to keep you informed as well as offer you opportunities to contribute to combatting this most insidious of dangers.
Breathe easy, stay safe.
P.S. The cutesy photos of Citylife’s masked staff on the cover are a tad misleading, as not all of the masks are safe against the pollution, please only buy the 3M N95, available in most pharmacies.