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Catholic villagers on alert as smog blankets Thai province

30,000 seek medical treatment as dangerous air pollution blankets Chiang Mai in the burning season

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: March 10, 2021 05:00 PM GMT

Updated: March 11, 2021 06:37 AM GMT

Catholic villagers on alert as smog blankets Thai province

Many Karen Catholic villagers in Chiang Mai province live in airy wooden and bamboo huts with no way to seal themselves off from air pollution. (Photo: YouTube)

Extreme air pollution in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai has sent some 30,000 people seeking medical treatment in hospitals in recent days, according to health officials, with many of the affected being Christian hilltribe people.

As thick smog has blanketed much of the mountainous province and neighboring areas, the rate of tiny airborne particle concentrations has reached alarming levels, standing as the worst rate in the world.

On March 10, the province experienced PM2.5 levels of as high as 592 micrograms per cubic meter of air, which is nearly 12 times above the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

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Satellite heat maps available online have showed numerous fires burning around Chiang Mai and adjacent areas.

Each year the large-scale burning of waste and dry vegetation in numerous villages as farmers clear their plots of land for new crops creates a massive environmental hazard for weeks on end during the current so-called burning season. 

Although lighting such fires is technically illegal, many farmers ignore the law because the easiest way to dispose of their waste is to burn it.

Many of those exposed to the hazardous fumes are Christian ethnic minority villagers, including Catholics, living around the mountains of the scenic province, which is popular with sightseers.

“The haze is so bad that we can hardly see our noses,” said Sombat Mousouloy, an ethnic Karen Catholic villager who lives in the province’s Mae Taeng district, several hours’ drive away from Chiang Mai city.

The smog can get so bad at times that “some people cough up blood,” Sombat told UCA News by phone. “This situation happens every year and we can’t do anything.”

In recent days the province has seen levels of airborne particulate matter known as PM2.5 rise consistently above 200 for several hours.

Exposure to such high concentration is deemed highly unhealthy, especially to vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and those with pulmonary conditions.

Local health experts have advised people to stay indoors behind tightly closed windows and doors and to wear face masks outdoors.

These options, however, are limited to people in hilltribe villages where many residents continue to live in airy wooden and bamboo huts with no way to seal themselves off from the outside.

Making matters worse for locals in these villages is that health care remains rudimentary and the closest modern clinic could be hours away by car or motorcycle.

“We cover our mouths and noses with shawls,” Sombat said. “We do our best [not to breathe in the fumes].”

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