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Cover photo: Pattaraporn Phongumphai

In the vibrant and bustling centre of Bangkok, PM 2.5 readings are soaring to hazardous levels. The city’s most vulnerable residents, the homeless, are left exposed. Living their lives on the streets, their already precarious health is exacerbated by the pollution. Despite promises of action to control pollution, the air quality crisis shows no sign of abating. 

The homeless sleeping on the streets on Ratchadamnoen Avenue

PM 2.5 pollution has gradually engulfed more and more the city each year, making lives on the street harsh. Access to clean air becomes a privilege as not everyone can afford it.  While many can afford an air purifier and have places to shelter, people experiencing homelessness have no choice. 

Prawet, who has been living on the streets for 5 years, disclosed that although he has not directly experienced the effect of PM 2.5, as a person living outside, he said he witnesses a lot of pollution and dust in Bangkok. “Earlier, I had face masks. I only have one set,” he said after being provided face masks as part of welfare services for the homeless. Prawet himself cannot afford face masks and he said it was rare for the homeless like him to have face masks to protect themselves from the toxic pollution, adding that he was provided with only 2-3 masks each time.

Prawet (On the right side)

“I breathe with difficulty. I feel tight in the chest”, said a homeless 72-year-old living in the area of Trok Sake In Phra Nakhon District. He is one of those who have no face masks to protect them from PM 2.5. He noted that when pollution reaches a high level, he covers his mouth with a cloth to avoid breathing the toxic pollution.

Meanwhile, Kanyanee, an elderly woman living on Ratchadamnoen Avenue, said the pollution gets in her eyes, blocking her eyesight and sometimes she finds it difficult to breathe. 


Pollution situation

The measurement of air quality is complex and its effects on human health have been analyzed in a number of different ways. According to Rocket Media Lab, toxic pollution in Bangkok has worsened year after year. In 2023, Bangkok had only 31 days with good air quality, fewer than the 49 days in 2022 and the 90 days in 2021. April was the most polluted period in 2023, with a monthly average PM 2.5 level of 115.47 μg/m3 while 8 March 2023 was the most polluted day, with a 24-hour PM 2.5 level of 179 μg/m3.

A study conducted by Richard A. and Elizabeth A. Muller, American researchers from Berkeley Earth, calculated that one cigarette per day is the rough equivalent of a PM 2.5 level of 22 μg/m3. Double that level, it is equivalent to 2 cigarettes per day. According to Rocket Media Lab’s calculation, the residents of Bangkok breathe toxic air equivalent to smoking 1,379.09 cigarettes in 2023.

Meanwhile, IQAir recently released its 2023 World Air Quality report. Thailand ranked 36th for the worst air quality out of 134th globally. The annual average concentration of PM 2.5 in the capital city of Bangkok was 21.7 μg/m3, while the WHO’s current guideline recommends that the annual average concentration of PM 2.5 should not exceed 5 μg/m3, while average 24-hour exposure should not  15 μg/m3 more than 3-4 days per year.

Alongside an annually increasing level of PM 2.5 pollution, civil society organisations (CSOs) in Thailand have made efforts to urge the state into action by leveraging the legal system. In 2022, CSOs and environmental advocates filed a lawsuit against three government departments: the National Environment Board, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Ministry of Industry, for neglecting to protect Thai citizens’ basic right to clean air. In August 2023, the Administrative Court ruled that the Industry Ministry must release data on factory emissions from the Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (PRTR).

This is not the first case. Over the past 2 years, CSOs have filed more than 5 lawsuits in court, claiming that the pollution situation has worsened and the state has not been able to alleviate the suffering of the people affected by pollution. Last year, a group of 10 Chiang Mai residents filed a lawsuit with the Chiang Mai Administrative Court against former PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, the National Environment Board (NEB), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for failing to deal with the issue. However, the lawsuit against the latter was dismissed. The court ruled that the PM and the NEB defendants were negligent in their duties and instructed them to implement emergency measures to address the problem within 90 days. The NEB then appealed. The case is still in limbo.


Homeless conditions in Bangkok exacerbated by pollution

According to a 2023 report produced jointly by the Department of Social Development and Welfare, academic institutions and non-government organizations (NGOs), a total of 2,499 homeless were found in public spaces and open shelters operated by NGOs. The data reveals that more than half of the homeless surveyed (1,271 people) were in Bangkok. 

“It (PM 2.5) directly affects them. If people living inside buildings are affected, it is no different for those sleeping and living outdoors in public spaces. They too will be impacted,” said Adchara Saravari, Secretary-General at the Issarachon Foundation.

In addition to the poor living conditions on the street, homeless people also face other health issues, including illnesses caused by their medical conditions, exposure to rain and road traffic pollution, which is also the major source of PM 2.5. Those conditions co-exist, making it difficult to attribute any illness directly to PM 2.5, but some of the homeless experience symptoms such as fatigue or frequent coughing.

Their life circumstances force them to eat and sleep on the ground, with their belongings and even their food stores piled on the ground. The most obvious symptom is coughing,” Adchara said, but their condition might be exacerbated due to chronic illnesses they already had.

Adchara Saravari

Adchara noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks were periodically distributed to the homeless. However, after the COVID-19 situation subsided, the distribution of face masks to the homeless was downplayed. Some homeless still wear face masks while many do not, depending on their access to masks as they cannot acquire any themselves. The face masks that the homeless receive come mostly from foundations and volunteers. The homeless cannot even afford face masks, let alone high-quality air pollution masks.

Adchara remarked that the homeless consume news via discarded newspapers and televisions in grocery stores they pass by, and while those living in houses can readily access information about dangerous levels of toxic pollution and seek healthcare, the homeless know about PM 2.5, but they are merely aware that toxic air has a potentially detrimental effect on them, who are exposed to it all the time. 

When discussing the constant exposure of the homeless to toxic pollution, what has to be mentioned are the shelters provided for them. “Not everyone wants to stay in shelters, but it is not that they prefer independence as society or media in the past have branded them,” Adchara explained. No one wants to live or sleep on the streets, but there are underlying reasons why they believe it is better to live outside, as they are still capable of living on their own. She clarified that the shelters provided for the homeless can be divided into two categories. Some provide a better quality of life, while some are overcrowded with people with a variety of mental and physical issues, and the internal management processes are far from comprehensive.

“Everyone has a home, but they cannot go back due to the circumstances of each individual,” she noted. As toxic pollution hits the city, it is a challenge for those living on the street to stay safe from PM 2.5. But telling them to return home is not an effective solution. Ultimately, it is not just a pollution problem. There are other complex underlying issues. 

The homeless do not want to be viewed by society as a problematic group. At the same time, some in society question why they should help the homeless. “The homeless do not want to be seen as an underprivileged or devalued group to that extent. But in reality, I want the homeless to be seen as people just like everyone else. Homelessness is a condition of society as a whole,” remarked Adchara

Adchara remarked that homelessness is an issue for everyone, as one day, we may develop Alzheimer's or have some kind of accident that forces us out of our homes. But once we are out of our homes, no one wants to sleep on the streets or eat food from trash cans. “At least, there should be an emergency agency that can act as an advisor, screen us, refer us to suitable places, and provide initial assistance. That would be OK. Right now, no such agency exists,” she said

In her opinion, toxic pollution affects all walks of life in the country. Even those with homes face it, let alone the homeless. She said if pollution mitigation efforts are adequate for those who have homes or who are not members of vulnerable populations, it would ensure that the homeless and vulnerable populations receive the same level of protection. Adchara asserted that the state must implement holistic policies to counter pollution.

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