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#FightingtoBreathe: A Discussion on the Air Pollution Crisis in Thailand

Public health experts, economist, legal and public communication campaigner joined forces for an in-depth discussion centered around the release of new data on air pollution’s impact on life expectancy in Thailand.

March 11, 2022 (Bangkok) – An international panel of experts discussed the increasingly dire air quality challenge in Thailand on 4 March in a special webinar event. The panel also discussed how public health can be protected while maintaining rapid economic growth. Representatives from IBUKOTA - the citizen-led, clean air coalition from Indonesia - also shared their key success factors that led to the landmark court case win against the Indonesian President and six officials for not protecting Jakarta residents from air pollution.

This virtual webinar showcased the release of new data from the University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) showing air pollution’s impact on life expectancy in Thailand, among the most polluted countries in Southeast Asia. The event was timed to be part of a public awareness-building campaign in support of the submission of the first bona fide, citizen-driven Clean Air Bill to the Thai Parliament, which took place on 21 January, 2022. The fate of this important draft legislation hangs in the balance and requires a groundswell of public support to ensure just a chance of it being deliberated in the Thai Parliament.

Participants in the event included:

  • Dr.Kenneth Lee, Director of Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), University of Chicago
  • Wirun Limsawart, M.D., Ph.D.,Director of the Society and Health Institute, Thai Ministry of Public Health & Co-Founder of the Thailand Clean Air Network
  • Dr. Sumi Mehta, Senior Epidemiologist, Global Environmental Health, Vital Strategies
  • Fajri Fadhillah, Environmental Lawyer, Indonesia Center for Environmental Law
  • Bondan Andriyanu, Climate & Energy Campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia

Below are a few key takeaways from the event. The full recording is available here, the Thai summary translated transcript here and the AQLI Thailand fact sheet in English is available here and in Thai here.

On Key Takeaway from the AQLI Thailand fact sheet findings: “Despite pandemic lockdowns and decreases in economic activities across the world, pollution in 2020 actually rose by 10.8% making Thailand the fourth most polluted country in Southeast Asia.”

“This is a continuation of a longer-term trend in Thailand. Since 2000, the average PM 2.5 level in Thailand has risen by 22.7%, and at times, it has been more than 5 times higher than the WHO-prescribed clean air guideline of 5 micrograms/cubic meter. Today, 100% of people in Thailand are living in polluted areas.”

“Air pollution is shortening the average Thai resident’s life expectancy by 1.8 years. It is even higher in the Northern region, where the gains are 2-3 years.”

“In terms of life expectancy, PM 2.5 is the greatest risk to human health in Thailand. Its impact is greater than smoking, alcohol use, and road injuries.”

“It is important to emphasize that Thailand currently relies almost exclusively on fossil fuel-derived energy sources despite its potential for renewable energy. In 2020, oil, gas and coal accounted for roughly almost 95% of energy consumption.”

“History has shown that air pollution can be solved through clean air policy. The US environmental crisis in the late 60s and 70s led people to demand cleaner air. As a result of the US clean air act, the US is today only a third as polluted as it was in the 1970s. In China, in response to growing public concerns, China declared a war against air pollution in 2013. Since then, China has cut smog down by 40% resulting in a life expectancy gain of around 2 years."

“Permanently reducing PM2.5 by 30% in Thailand’s most polluted provinces would increase average life expectancy by a year in some regions.” – Dr. Kenneth Lee

On the Evidence of the Health Impact in Thailand: “Health & environmental protection are inseparable. There needs to be more awareness and collective effort to make the evidence more explicit for policy-makers and the public. This is both a structural and cultural violence, and we need to be more aggressive in all levels – in the collection of the evidence and in all reforms including reforming the law. That is why the AQLI is an important tool to help support our clean air act.”

“Now all over the world we are in the age of militarization of the state, where every citizen is deemed a soldier who will go to the forefront to die for the country. However, now the people in Thailand and many places in the world are soldiers that the government is letting us die for the prosperity of the economy. This is injustice and this is why we have to ask for our right to breathe clean air.” – Limsawart, M.D., Ph.D.

On Protecting Public Health & Maintaining Economic Growth: “No one is immune to air pollution…exposure starts even when mothers are pregnant in the womb, and continues throughout the life course. While people focus on these air pollution episodes, it is really the chronic or long-term exposure to air pollution which is really driving the health effects.”

“What does this life expectancy actually mean? If a child is born in Thailand, on average, that child born now would actually die around 12 months sooner than would be expected if they had exposure to air pollution and fine particulates that were closer to the WHO air quality guidelines.”

“Thailand’s national air quality standard is 5 times greater than the health-based guideline levels which have been set by the WHO. So, if you look at Thailand’s current national standards you may think that Thailand’s air quality is rather good, when in reality, it is a major health concern. In fact, we have seen a steady increase in air pollution-related illness and death, with over 32,000 deaths every year occurring as a result of air pollution mostly from respiratory and cardiovascular disease, based on evidence from Thammasart University. It is difficult to emphasize the urgency of the situation until Thailand is able to adopt more health-based standards for air pollution.”

“There are proven, very effective solutions to address all of the leading sources of pollution in Thailand—whether they are mobile sources, industrial combustion and processes or waste management. It is crucial to emphasize that these improvements in air quality are compatible with continued economic growth and development. For example, if you are able to ensure better emissions and fuel standards, you can actually reduce air pollution from mobile sources even as the number of vehicles on the road increases.” – Dr. Sumi Mehta

On Building Trust & Momentum in the Citizen-Led Coalition in Indonesia: “Success factors include the coalition’s effort to build an air pollution narrative that the public can relate to by focusing on the costs (of air pollution) being borne by the general public. The initial target audience was concerned mothers who are impacted by their children going to school or missing schools due to air pollution and this relates to many classes in Jakarta. The coalition was able to expand to the public by opening the option to the public at large to be a plaintiff in the court case, and to share their story which were very relatable to the judges.” – Fajri Fadhillah

“We collaborate with CNN Indonesia to help communicate powerful messages to the public…We installed PM 2.5 monitoring devices on children as they go to school from their house and back, and the impact of the increasing PM 2.5 levels real-time was very powerful…It is important that we communicate the critical message that this IBUKOTA movement belongs to the public and not to any specific NGO nor any political party. In fact, we do not show the logo of any NGO or political party as leading or supporting this coalition. Therefore, we did not have to pay for advertisements through social media at all. We just brought the issue to the public and let them know that this is their movement.” – Bondan Andriyanu

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Speaker Bios:

Kenneth Lee, is the Director of Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) and a Senior Research Associate at the Department of Economics, University of Chicago. Prior to this role, Dr. Lee served as the Executive Director of EPIC India, and a Research Fellow at the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA) and the Energy Institute at Haas. He studies questions in the areas of development economics, environmental, and energy economics, and has designed field experiments in Kenya and India. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/yc655sfa

Wirun Limsawart, M.D., Ph.D., is a medical anthropologist, medical doctor, and the Director of the Society and Health Institute, Thai Ministry of Public Health. He is also a co-founder of the Thailand Clean Air Network. Dr.Limsawart was instrumental in obtaining the buy-in at the Thai Ministry of Public Health to develop the Air Quality Health Index (or AQHI) for Thailand, in initiating the development of the first citizen-led, nationwide air quality monitoring platform for Thailand and in taking the editorial role to develop the Clean Air White Paper. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/yc655sfa

Dr. Sumi Mehta is a global health professional at Vital Strategies with over 20 years of experience working at the intersection of air pollution, health, and development. Dr Mehta has extensive field experience in South and Southeast Asia and also in Africa, East Asia and Latin America. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/yc655sfa

Fajri Fadhillah, is an environmental lawyer at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, which is part of the IBUKOTA coalition in Indonesia. Fajri has been involved in several advocacy cases related to pollution control and/or environmental damage, amongst them, the landmark citizen’s lawsuit over Jakarta air pollution. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/yc655sfa

Bondan Andriyanu is the Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, which is part of the IBUKOTA coalition in Indonesia. Mr. Andriyanu has over 15 years of experience in driving public communication campaigns and, since 2017, he has focused on air pollution, specifically campaigning for the reduction of the use of coal. His work centers around increasing the health impact awareness of air pollution through public education training. Read more: https://tinyurl.com/yc655sfa

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About Thailand Clean Air Network (or Thailand CAN)

The Thailand Clean Air Network is a citizen-driven, volunteer group of professionals from many disciplines that work collaboratively with policy-makers, the private sector, academia and civil society to seek long-term, sustainable solutions to Thailand’s air pollution problem. To this end, the group drafted and submitted the first, bona fide citizen-driven Clean Air Bill to the Thai Parliament on Jan 21, 2022. The group adopts a rights-based approach with the belief that every person should have the right to breathe clean air, which is inherently the very right to life itself. To find out more, please visit www.ThailandCAN.org

About Air Quality Life Index (AQLI)

The AQLI translates particulate air pollution concentrations into perhaps the most important metric that exists: its impact on life expectancy. Developed by the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics Michael Greenstone and his team at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), the AQLI is rooted in research quantifying the causal relationship between long-term human exposure to air pollution and life expectancy. The Index combines this research with hyper-localized, global particulate measurements, yielding unprecedented insight into the true cost of particulate pollution in communities around the world. The Index also illustrates how air pollution policies can increase life expectancy when they meet the World Health Organization’s guideline for what is considered a safe level of exposure, existing national air quality standards, or user- defined air quality levels. This information can help to inform local communities and policymakers about the importance of air pollution policies in concrete terms. To find out more, please visit https://aqli.epic.uchicago.edu

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. To find out more, please or visit www.vitalstrategies.org or Twitter @VitalStrat.

About the Indonesian Clean Air Coalition (or IBUKOTA)

The Clean Air Coalition (or IBUKOTA) combines a large number of individuals and organizations to fight fiercely for clean air in Indonesia. In September 2021, IBUKOTA’s legal coalition led the charge in a landmark case in which the Indonesian court ruled that President Joko Widodo and members of his government had neglected citizens’ rights to clean air and were ordered to take measures to improve the poor air quality in the capital.

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