Sun seen through haze above city (© Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Images)
The United States and Thailand are working to reduce air pollution in Southeast Asian cities, including Bangkok, seen here in 2020. (© Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP Images)

Clean air matters for everyone’s health — no matter where they live — and for the health of the planet, too.

That’s why Thailand is partnering with the United States to tackle rising levels of air pollution. Through recent technological advancements and research opportunities, the two governments are finding ways to bring clean air back to Thailand.

What causes air pollution?

In Thailand, air pollution is the result of factors relating to transportation, industry, forest fires and agriculture. Microscopic particulate matter released by these sectors can penetrate deep into people’s lungs and cause serious health problems.

Air pollution in Southeast Asia is further complicated by transboundary haze, which results from particulate matter carried by the wind across international borders.

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 7 million people die each year from air pollution. Around the world, 9 out of 10 people breathe in air every day that exceeds WHO guidelines for clean air.

In 2019, 32,000 premature deaths across Thailand were connected to high levels of harmful particulates in the air, according to the Stockholm Environment Institute (PDF, 1.5MB).

In the past, the United States also struggled with high levels of air and water pollutants. After American citizens demanded cleaner air, water and land, then-President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the Clean Air Act in 1970.

Today, the EPA creates and enforces environmental regulations, brings in top scientists to research environmental problems and funds states’ individual environmental programs. Because of this work, air quality in the United States dramatically improved over the past several decades.

Clean-air cooperation

The United States is working with Thailand to bring about similar success.

Recently, the U.S. State Department launched a project to strengthen capacity for air quality monitoring and management across Southeast Asia in collaboration with Chiang Mai University and the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand.

The project allows the government and research institutes to design a low-cost fine particulate matter sensor network to detect the presence of polluted air particles. Scientists will use the sensor data to assess regional emissions and inform future government policy.

As part of this project, the U.S. and Thai governments will work to increase public awareness of air pollution through outreach programs.

Monitoring air quality in the Mekong region

Aerial view of Mekong River and forest (© RooM the Agency/Alamy)
An aerial view of the Mekong River in Thailand. (© RooM the Agency/Alamy)

Last year, the United States and Thailand launched the Mekong Air Quality Explorer Tool in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development, NASA, the Royal Thai Government’s Pollution Control Department and the Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency.

The tool uses satellite data and computer models to provide an accurate air pollution forecast up to three days ahead of time, according to USAID. This allows the Royal Thai Government to fill data gaps and see air quality projections across the country, not just in urban centers like Bangkok.

“Poor air quality is a serious seasonal problem in Thailand that has persisted for over a decade,” said USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia Director Steven G. Olive.

“Through the SERVIR-Mekong project, USAID is pleased to help improve air quality monitoring throughout Thailand and the region and to disseminate this information to the public through the Air Quality Explorer Tool.”