Thai authorities consider evacuating children and the aged as air pollution in North worsens

Air pollution in the Northern province of Chiang Rai has worsened to a dangerous level, prompting authorities to consider evacuating children and elderly people over the next few days.

PM's Office Minister Woravat Auapinyakul yesterday held an urgent meeting with the Chiang Rai governor and all district chiefs, after which it was agreed that there would be a total ban on setting fires to clear farmland.

This urgent measure will last three days, starting yesterday, he said, adding that leaders of the local communities would also face disciplinary action if they failed to prevent forest and farmland fires.

The quality of air in this Northern province that borders Burma has worsened over the past 4-5 days, marked by haze and a record amount of "PM 10" or fine dust particles in the air as much as 437 micrograms per cubic metre in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district yesterday.

The number is this year's highest to date, causing concerns among authorities that the health of residents, especially children and old people, will be affected.

The number of sick people due to the bad air quality has also risen in the past few days.

The widespread burning of farmland to get rid of weeds and previous crops to prepare the land for the next crop has contributed to the worsening air quality.

"If the three-day total ban on burning does not improve the situation, we will have to evacuate the residents, especially the high-risk groups, as hospitals have already seen more than 150 patients per day over the past few days," he said.

Sophon Poom-chuchan, the chief of Mae Sai district, said high-risk groups and sick people should not leave their homes unless necessary.

He said the district is ready to evacuate people if ordered by the provincial authorities. Mae Sai district yesterday also launched a "No Burn" campaign to stop the air quality from worsening.

"It will take some time for the haze to go away if there is no rainfall in the coming days. More importantly, we have to ensure that there will be no more burning, so we have sought cooperation from tambon chiefs and village heads to help prevent this catastrophe."

Besides Chiang Rai, six other Northern provinces such as Chiang Mai, Lampoon and Lampang have also faced the air quality problem.

These provinces have seen the level of PM 10 or fine particle dust exceeding the maximum 120mcg per cubic metre.

Muang district of Chiang Mai yesterday recorded 187.5mcg of fine particle dust per cubic metre, while Lampang province recorded 176.7mcg of the dust per cubic metre.

For Mae Hong Son province, the figures were 210.3mcg per cubic metre while Nan province had 160.17mcg per cubic metre.

In addition to farmland burning, there have also been many incidents of forest fires set by hunters looking for forest products.

Surachai Khan-arsa, governor of Lampoon province, said: "Forest fires remain a major problem as the air quality has worsened, marked by dusts as much as 197mcg per cubic metre.

We will also have to encourage villagers to grow other crops instead of corn and similar varieties that require frequent farmland burning to get rid of weeds," he said.

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