Thousands evacuated in Thailand after toxic fumes engulf residents

THAILAND - Provincial officials ordered the evacuation of residents from about 1,500 homes in Samut Prakan after a fire at a local garbage dump yesterday was declared a disaster area, and toxic fumes spread to many parts of the province and nearby areas in Bangkok.

Kanit Iamrahong, the governor of Samut Prakan, said yesterday that three communities closest to the dump, with 1,480 families, had been evacuated.

The governor declared Tambon Praeksa in Samut Prakan's Muang district, where the burning dump site is located, a disaster area.

Many of the people evacuated were sent to the Tambon Praeksa administrative organisation office.

The Pollution Control Department tested the air quality in areas around the burning dump and found harmful substances, such as sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide and some carcinogenic chemicals.

Harmful to the respiratory system

Department director general Vichian Jungrungruang said that toxic fumes were harmful to the respiratory system and could cause eye irritations. And some of the gases caused by the fire could cause cancer.

He advised children, the elderly and people with heart disease or high blood pressure to avoid breathing in the toxic gases, warning that some were deadly.

His department would monitor the air quality in the affected areas and report the results to the public, the director-general said.

The agency yesterday urged people living within a 1.5km radius of the burning dump to move away from the area. Among the communities and housing estates nearby are Gallery, Natura, Sukhumvit-Praeksa, Baan Sawasdee, Supalai Ville, Panthiya, and Sap Thani.

The fire began at around noon on Sunday at the former dump in Bang Pu industrial estate. The site, covering an area of 150 rai, has been abandoned for more than 10 years, according to local authorities.

Firefighters managed to contain the fire after 12 hours but still failed to extinguish it. They said it would take at least three more days to completely put it out.

Kanit, the Samut Prakan governor, blamed strong winds for the spread of fire. He said a fire had occurred at the same site about five years ago.

The governor said the owner of the dump, who was not identified, had been charged with violating public health and environmental laws. He said officials would try to find out if the dump was illegally used after being abandoned for more than a decade.

Fumes from the fire affected at least five districts in the east of Bangkok - Bang Na, Prawet, Lat Krabang, Saphan Sung and Klong Sam Wa.

Residents and office workers in Bang Na, the Bangkok district closest to Samut Prakan, yesterday reported breathing difficulties as smoke from the fire spread. Many wore protective facial masks.

Advice for Bangkokians

Bangkok Metropolitan Administration officials worked with the Pollution Control Department yesterday to try to determine the size of affected areas, according to Somchai Chatsakunpen, deputy director of the BMA's Environment Department. He said teams were sent to different areas to advise residents to protect themselves from the fumes.

"People are advised to avoid an area with dense fumes. They should wear facial masks to cover their mouth and nose. It is advisable to avoid breathing in the smoke that is harmful to their health," he said.

Dr Piboon Issaraphan, a senior official from the Department of Disease Control, said that facial masks normally could protect against fine particles or dust, but not chemicals. He said it would be better for people living near the burning dump to move away for their safety. Those particularly at risk are people with heart diseases, asthma, expectant mothers, the elderly, and babies.

He said there were no reports yesterday of serious health cases caused by toxic fumes from the burning dump.