According to a 2014 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) about 7 million people annually die prematurely from air pollution, which leads to respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cancers. COVID-19 has stressed the necessity of clean air as several studies have shown that symptoms from the virus worsen the more polluted the air is.
Evidence also suggests that air pollution is connected to mental health issues, poor academic performance, increased anxiousness, irritability and aggression, which all have a measurable economic and social impact on a community.
The Problem in Phuket
Phuket generally scores between the low 20s to the 50s on the AQIS (air quality index score), a commonly used metric to rate pollution levels, (anything over 25 is considered unhealthy by the WHO). While it’s not as bad as Bangkok, which ranges between 40 and 80, we could improve on it.
The principal causes of poor air quality in Phuket are motorized vehicles, burning of agricultural waste and the incineration of the 800 to 1,000 tons of garbage produced per day on the island.
Restrict motorized vehicles from two to three streets near the center of every town on Phuket. Prior to COVID-19, major cities around the world were already restricting cars in the central business districts to fight climate change, reduce air pollution and make the cities more livable. Banning cars also reduces pedestrian deaths, obesity and stress-related diseases, and provides space for housing or parks. In most cities, 40-50% of the centre is allocated to parking.
There are already restrictions on vehicles on the weekends in Patong and Phuket Town. Most of the villages on the island also have at least one street that could be turned into bike lanes, walking paths and gardens. Further, a study by Melbourne University shows that bike lanes positively affect real estate values and increase the revenues for retail stores and restaurants in the area.
Plant Trees and hedges to replace parking spaces in the city centres of Phuket with green spaces that improve air quality, reduce noise pollution, cool the ambient temperature, while providing shade and making the area more walkable and visually appealing. A 2016 study by the WHO provides evidence that urban green spaces have a positive impact on the immune system, reduces obesity, improves cognitive function and health conditions including skin cancer, asthma, allergies, heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other stress-related conditions.
Compost is made from organic waste and can be used as fertiliser. Some 50-60% of garbage is compostable, which means composting can substantially reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills, leaking methane gas, or being burned in incinerators. It also results in less polluted waters as it reduces dependence on fertilisers made from fossil fuels and creates an additional revenue stream from our garbage.
Stop Burning Agricultural Waste. Across the island you often see smoke billowing from roadside fires burning organic waste from trees or agricultural waste from farming. These fires are bad enough as they release volatile organic compounds which can cause asthma, COPD and other respiratory diseases. However, plastic is also often added to them, which releases dioxins that can cause cancers, developmental problems in children, and damage our immune systems.
Instead, the organic waste can be turned into compost and bio-gas, which can generate energy or be used for cooking, while the plastic can be recycled.
Although COVID-19 has devastated Phuket’s economy it has also given us an opportunity to rethink how we live on the island. Clean air is a basic human right and is fundamental to our physical and mental health. If done correctly, cleaning it up will not only improve the quality of life on Phuket but also improve our social and economic well-being.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.