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Chiang mai Burning: Could You Survive Thailand’s Polluted North?

Chiang mai Burning

Would you even WANT to survive Thailand’s polluted North? …

Until yesterday I was having serious doubts about my ability to stick it out in Chiang mai during the burning season. Last year wasn’t too bad, but this year, along with thousands of others, I’m suffering.

The Nation: All-out efforts to fight smog (cough cough)…the haze crisis in the North, which threatens to be the worst in recent history, with air pollution in some parts of Chiang Ri province already three times beyond safety limits.

Every year the government publishes press releases on their meetings where they talk talk talk about cleaning up the air in North Thailand. Good grief all – it’s not rocket science, just quit burning already! Because of the very real health consequences, other countries outlawed open burning yaks ages ago. That’s right. There is a solution to this seasonal mess.

Yeah. I’m miffed. And Thais should be too. I went from gushing about Chiang mai and wanting to retire here, to wondering how quickly I could leave.

Asian Correspondent: Northern Thailand smothers under blanket of haze: Flights were turned away from Chiang Mai International Airport this week as Northern Thailand’s haze crisis deepened. ‘The Nation’ reported Tuesday that at least four pilots decided not to land their planes Monday as visibility was reduced to 800 meters due to the persistent smog.

For the past three weeks, due to a lack of being able to breath, I’ve been mostly housebound. You see, I’m asthmatic, but not seriously so (and I pity Northern Thais who are). My grandmother on my father’s side is though. She died of emphysema young, in her late 60’s. My father and older brother are also serious asthmatics (when I was growing up it was nothing to have an ambulance come and take my older sibling away). But get me around cigarette smoke (even on a walk by) and I’m puking, then coughing up gunk the long night long. Lovely.

What I’ve done to survive the burning North…

Because last year wasn’t too bad I started out ignoring the burning this year. Big mistake. Before I knew it my lungs were compressed, I was suffering from headaches, intermittent coughing kept me awake throughout the night, and the lack of oxygen replaced my energy with sore muscles.

As I wasn’t in a position to hightail it out of here for months at a time I needed to find a doable solution. And fast.

Thai Language ConnectorsChris and Angela, in How to Deal with Chiang Mai’s Smoky Season suggested a N95 grade mask (shown in the banner above) from HomePro. It works fine for running around, and along with hepa-filters in the car, on a good day I can get to the grocery store and back.

I already had three air cleaners (one from Bangkok and two bought last year) ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 baht. This year they were not enough. Worried, the man of the house found one that actually works, the Toshiba Air Purifier CAF-G50(P). And while 15,000 baht might sound expensive, it doesn’t need expensive filters (as does the 40 thou baht version) and does an amazing job of clearing the air. Live and learn.

Infact, the Toshiba is the real reason why I’m writing this post – I wanted to share my positive experiences with others who are also suffering due to the burning this year. Here’s what happened…

Several days ago the electric went out and I forgot to reset the Toshiba. A few (three?) hours later I was in serious trouble with my breathing. I became lethargic, my lungs were again restricted with the building pressure in my chest, and coughing was full-on. All it took to recover was to put the Toshiba on its Turbo setting. Six hours later the light went from red (dirty) to green (clean) and I could breath freely again. Relief!

Then just yesterday the Toshiba got switched to low (there be gremlins in my house). Once again I was in distress, only this time to the point of having a serious discussion about being hospitalised. Luckily I noticed the errant settings and flipped them to high again. Three hours later the light was back to green and I could breath. Problem solved.

I’m now confident about staying longer in Thailand’s polluted North. Only next year, I’ll get an additional Toshiba so’s I can live upstairs as well. Sleeping on the sofa hasn’t been too bad all these weeks but I miss my comfy bed.

Anyway, as I need to come up with a closing paragraph I’ll state what now seems to me to be the obvious. If you can’t leave the north of Thailand during burning season then there are few (logical) tips to follow: Stay inside as much as you can, wear a N95 grade mask when outside, cover your ACs (house and car) with Hepa filters, and buy an air cleaner with a known track record. And good luck!

Note: for useful vocabulary, phrases, and audio about the burning North, go to Hugh Leong’s post: Thai Language Thai Culture: Breathing in Chiang Mai. I took the video and photos used in the post just last week on a rare trip out of the house (it was the least I could do).

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My passion is promoting the Thai language. Fullstop. Oh, and traveling. I'm passionate about that as well. And photography too.

13 Comments

  1. Hi Catherine, I’m a great fan of your website and I feel really grateful of all the efforts that you put in to gather the best free resources to study Thai.

    Talking about this article and the recent pollution situation in the north, I’m a 30 years old male with no respiratory problems and the smoke annoyed me a little bit but nothing more than that…

    I didn’t have to buy a mask and I still believe that ordinary Bangkok is much worse than polluted Chiang Mai.

    One thing that worries me, though, is the great drought that has been going on since November… 5 months without a drop of rainwater.

    Last year hasn’t been this terrible… I hope it’s gonna rain soon!

  2. Hi Alex, thank you for your kind words and thank you for reading my site. I often feel that this site keeps me sane.

    I lived in Bangkok for nine years and didn’t have many problems with breathing (none that I can think of anyway). But I did buy an air cleaner because of the worries with living in a big city. I will say that when I’d visit Bangkok from Brunei pre Skytrain and MRT days it was awful. One time it was so bad I was convinced I had the flu so holed up in my hotel room for a day, pumping juice and all sorts of drugs into my body to get it to stop.

    While you don’t think the burning is affecting you because you can’t feel anything in your lungs, it’s wise to be careful. The man of the house is the same as you (doesn’t feel bothered by burning). Yet he still has health problems from when we went through the 1997 Southeast Asian haze 18 years ago. I was the one who couldn’t breath for the duration, but he was the one who got ill long term. It’s something to think about.

    I too worry about the dought. The year before all it seemed to do was rain here.

  3. Here’s a quote I forgot to add to my post:

    cahfs.umn.edu: Thailand’s northern province, where burning is rampant, has one of the highest rates of lung cancer in the developing world, with 500 to 600 new cases appearing every year in a population of 1.7 million people, comparable to the incidence of lung cancer in other rapidly developing countries in Southeast Asia, according to the most recent 2008 data from the World Health Organization.1 Lung disease in northern Thailand has been linked to airborne carcinogens, including the smog-inducing byproducts of burning plastic. Small airborne particulates—such as dust, ash and diesel fuel particles—are inhalable, and therefore, the most dangerous.

  4. Here comes the rain …

  5. I’m an asthmatic too. Thankfully I’ve given up cigarettes for over one year now but the situation you describe would definitely affect my breathing. Unfortunately I think very little will happen in the immediate future to put right the burning season issue. A good quality mask will give decent protection but in Thailand’s hot sun you could end up looking like Homer Simpson.

    Excellent post and breathe easy.

  6. Martyn, I too used to smoke (what’s wrong with us people). And I agree, nothing much is going to get done – just more talk talk talk.

    We haven’t had much in the way of sun up here for weeks as the smoke blocks it out. I did see a shadow for the first time a few days ago. I’m ready for more sun or rain. They can keep the fires.

    Now that we’ve had rain Thailand can forget about making excuses for yet another year. I read on twitter today they’ve switched to making excuses about the floods instead.

    But I’m still feeling it even with the rain… I was in too much of a rush to turn the air cleaners down.

  7. Udon Thani has had rain lately, plenty of hot sunshine too, though it has cooled a bit recently. This morning I saw pictures of the flooding in Pattaya. Quite a downpour it would seem.

    I’m heading out to Udon next month. Looking forward to it. I hope somehow the smog clears up your way.

  8. Bangkok was flooding like crazy too. And that’s what happens when people build over things they shouldn’t. Like, storm drains.

    Last night was another storm. I’m not sure it rained but it was loud enough to keep me awake a good part of the night with things banging. I need a nap!

    Enjoy Udon! One day I’ll get down that way …

  9. I feel your pain. I have a harder time with the smoke each year. If I go out for a few minutes without my mask I end up coughing for hours. Angela is much luckier as she is pretty much unaffected. Next year we’ll be leaving during the peak pollution months. I just can’t do it again.

  10. Chris, good idea. I might take off for the worst of it as well. Just not the entire time. I’ve also decided that I’ll close in a part of the living room. You know, just like they have in asap operating rooms? Possibly having to leave for three months could get expensive so pulling this off might not cost anywhere close.

    I had to buy yet another air cleaner towards the end. After the first rains came I turned the cleaners off and it really got to me. Silly me. I’m still coughing from it (or maybe that’s the gunk trying to make its way out of my lungs).

    Next year I plan on doing a number of things different …

  11. The N-95 mask is okay but the N-99’s are the ones to buy. The N-95 filters out 95% of the pollutants. Another way to say that is it lets in 5% of the pollutants. The N-99 filters out 99% or allows in 1%. As such one could say the N-99 is 5 times better (1% x 5 = 5%). However the N-99s (aka FFP3 European standard) cost only about 4 times as much individually so there is a financial reason to buy the 99s but, mainly, it filters out more so it is definitely healthier to wear.

    FYI: I bought a box of 10 FFP3’s for about 1100 baht.

  12. Thanks Ron. This year I bought the Vogmask from Singapore. I’ve yet to really put it to the test because the burning was pretty much gone when I got back from Bangkok.

    Quote: Vogmask’s advanced microfiber filtration fabric filters an average of 99% of particulate matter, such as PM2.5 particles, haze, dust, germs, pollen, and other airborne contaminants. First in market to bring fashion to high efficiency, Vogmask holds CE certificates on Quality manufacturing and Product examination: Respiratory Protective Device. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Directive 89/686/EEC, General Product Safety Directive 2001/95 EC. Vogmask also meets US FDA 42 CFR requirements for N99 rating.

  13. Another way to see the smog is to consider that in some countries with harsh winters people in the small towns and countryside avoid going out for anything but work and groceries for a few weeks/months choosing to hunker down in a warm dry place. Similarly you can use a combination of air con and air purifiers inside and masks outside for 3-4 months here. Check the hourly AQI forecast http://aqicn.org/city/chiang-mai/ and when the air is yellow close up the windows and doors. When it is orange turn on the air con (if it isn’t on already due to the heat). When it is red turn on an air purifier and run as needed. When it is purple let it run 24-7. At burgundy you might want a second air purifier or to wear a mask inside – although we didn’t have any burgundy this year! Outside wear a mask if it is orange unless you are sensitive then wear it when it is yellow.

    For those who say ‘why bother living in CM’ the answer is many, if not most, places have some kind of problem like this. The cost of living plus the fabulous food make this a fairly good place to be. Consider the air, water and food where you live and how many toxins you are being exposed to and then consider you can’t do much very about that. Anyone living in the Great Lakes region of North America is drinking water that is at least as bad for their health as the air here. However here at least you can do something about your exposure to the air pollution. And I have looked all around the region and have yet to find a place that is comparable with clean air all year round. Everywhere in SE Asia has enough pollution of air or water problems to rule them out … so I am staying for the short term. Long term I may go back to northern Ontario where there is still pristine air and water. By then it might be the only place left on the planet :(

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