Young hearts and big plans to fight air pollution

11 February 2023

by Bryan YONG

Sakurako Masuda (Rudo), a 19-year-old female student who grew up in the severe air pollution of Chiang Mai, Thailand, spreads awareness about air pollution in her hometown through her project called FFF. Despite criticism from adults, Rudo calls her fellow youth to action through her belief in the power and minds of the youth in ASEAN. 

From 17th to 18th December 2022, Sakurako Masuda (Rudo) organised the Forest Fire Fighters (FFF) workshop in Sri Lanna National Park of Chiang Mai, Thailand, to teach high school students about air pollution. Growing up in an agricultural family in Mae Taeng district, Rudo has seen people burn cropland annually. Currently 19 years old, Rudo is a second-year Environmental Science major student at Chiang Mai University. 

“Since I’m interested in science already, [studying] Environmental Science was an easy choice for me because I want to make an impact on my region,” says Rudo.

FFF is Rudo’s first-ever environmental project in her hometown.

(Feature Photo & Video: EcoCupid)

Sakurako Masuda (Rudo), leader of the Forest Fire Fighters (FFF) project in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (EcoCupid)

Living Dangerously in Mae Taeng

Mae Taeng district is a beautiful place but it is also one of the most polluted places in the world. Air pollution in Northern Thailand is particularly serious during the ‘smoky season’ at the beginning of the year. Air pollutants called PM2.5 reach dangerous levels during this time. For example, the acceptable AQI is anything below 50, but during the smoky season, it can even go up to 200, explains Rudo. The presence of carcinogenic radon gas due to a combination of geography and traffic emissions adds another element of danger to the toxic air in Mae Taeng.

Wildfires that start near croplands oftentimes may be the result of cropland fires that spread into adjacent forests. (EcoCupid)

“I think around back into 2019, that is when people started noticing about the high AQI. During that time, it went up to about 500. So that’s when the concern has really started.”, says Rudo.

Air pollution has been a serious issue for 10 years already, with each smoky season more persistent than the last, up to 2-3 months at a time. Air pollution can negatively affect health and the economy. Chiang Mai is a tourist area that has seen many tours cancelled due to air pollution.

Persistent haze has been a common sight in Chiang Mai, Thailand for at least a decade. (EcoCupid)

Facing the recurring air pollution, Rudo is worried about people who work outside, such as farmers, who may be unaware of how to protect themselves when this situation happens. According to Rudo, people need to be made aware of the health implications of breathing polluted air. They think it’s just a normal cough and flu.

Air pollution can cause respiratory issues and allergies, and even behavioural issues such as autism and ADHD, especially for the younger generation, from newborns to preschool children, says Rudo.

Rudo is concerned about solving the root cause of air pollution in Mae Taeng before it can spread to another region of Thailand or even to neighbouring ASEAN countries.

Fortunately, there has been lots of progress in awareness against air pollution when comparing 2019 and 2022. Pollution is getting better, even during the annual smoky season. People also have received more education on how to use the correct type of face masks, how to use air filters, and how to clean them, says Rudo. The combined efforts of the government, the private sector, and the local communities are slowly improving the air pollution situation in Mae Taeng.

Local government officials, emergency personnel, and wildfire experts gather in Chiang Mai’s air pollution ‘war room’ to discuss and monitor the progress to combat air pollution. (EcoCupid)

Forest Fire Fighters

The two-day program introduced 20 high school students to the causes and impacts of air pollution in Northern Thailand, and ways to protect themselves from it. 

FFF also introduced students to a mask-fit test through a machine that calculates how efficiently a mask protects one from air pollution. The fit test measures leakages from the nose bridge, cheeks, and chin. The students were excited about the mask fitting experiment because they never knew that that was a thing, especially when they discovered that the masks they wore that day failed to protect them from PM 2.5 particles.

Dr Wan Wiriya conducts a mask-fit test for FFF participants using an experimental device that detects the sizes of particles that are able to pass through a face mask. Masks that protect against air pollution must be able to block PM2.5 particles. (EcoCupid)

“Since [the] Covid pandemic has happened, people started wearing a mask, but what they are wearing is a surgical mask, and that one has shown to have 90 to 100% leakage. So, there’s not a point of wearing it. It’s more [about] protecting yourself from what socially think about you,” says Rudo.

Then the Sri Lanna National Park rangers introduced the students to fire breaking. Fire breaking is the practice of removing fire-starting material from the forest floor to minimise the chance of a fire starting and spreading through the forest.

FFF participants practice fire breaking, a technique designed to remove fire-starting material from forest floors to prevent wildfires from spreading. (EcoCupid)

The students then had a chance to make their own face mask based on the EnviMask, a technology developed by Chiang Mai university. The mask protects the user from COVID-19 particles, PM 10, and PM 2.5, and is reusable up to 20 times, which is sustainable for the environment as well.

If you don’t own an EnviMask, don’t worry. Rudo suggests the N95 or KN95 masks protect you from all air pollution particles.

Rudo demonstrates the method to correctly sew an EnviMask to the FFF participants. (EcoCupid)

Support from YSEALI

Rudo’s project started when she was an exchange student in Montana, USA. During that time, she was really inspired by what she learnt and really wanted to bring back Mae Taeng to educate the youth about the dangers of air pollution and how people can protect themselves.

Rudo explains that her friends whom she met from the US student exchange program, the YSEALI Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues, shared a lot of air pollution information and statistics from their respective countries. 

“It is very interesting for me because my main focus is usually in the northern part of Thailand only, and now I get to learn more about other countries in ASEAN as well.”

Rudo and her YSEALI Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues in Montana, US. (EcoCupid)

Why high school students? Why not?

During the long months of preparation, Rudo’s team discussed their target audience for the longest time before finally deciding upon inviting middle school (13 – 15 years) and high school (16 – 18 years) students in Mae Taeng district for the workshop.

A lot of people told her before that she should change her target audience to someone more professional in the university or in the working class, according to Rudo.

“Many people believe that youth like us would not have the power to change big problems like environmental problems…that they are too young and they might not have any information about what is going on right now,” says Rudo.

FFF workshop participants consist of middle school and high school students. Rudo believes that youths have the power to solve big environmental problems too. (EcoCupid)

Despite the criticism, Rudo thinks that the youth can definitely make a change because one day they’ll grow up and through this workshop, they might as well. She thinks that the community should educate the younger generation because she thinks that they have the ability to learn and grow up to be the future of the country in the next 20 or 50 years.

“But as a [youth] representative, I’m 19 years old and I’m already a project leader. I am very thankful for the US Embassy and the facility team to notice my ability and that I wanted to contribute to my society as well.”, says Rudo.

Dr Wan Wiriya Agrees

Dr Wan Wiriya is an assistant professor from Chiang Mai university who specialises in air pollution. He is also Rudo’s lecturer who supervised and spoke at the FFF workshop. He agrees with focusing on young people for environmental change.

Dr Wan Wiriya giving a lecture at the FFF workshop. (EcoCupid)

Dr Wan believes that the younger generation will stay on and fight even after he is gone. Therefore, he would like to teach them how they have to think and act to end air pollution. He believes that the next generation will have the power to change the globe.

“You know, the next generation, if they change something, maybe something will happen. For me, the next generation will [bring] change [to] our global [situation],” says Dr Wan.

Dr Wan hopes that by involving students in workshops outside of the usual classroom, students can learn soft skills and realise that they too are capable of helping the community.

“Maybe [if] I bring 10 of them to help, they could be staff of the activity. But I think in the future, maybe one of them can follow my way and can do like [me] or better than me,” says Dr Wan.

Walking alone, walking fast; but together we can go forward

After long months of preparing for the workshop, Rudo is grateful to meet with the 20 students who applied for this program.

Rudo wants to continue to educate the older generation about the causes of air pollution. Many of the older generation work as farmers in the Northern region of Thailand. They usually only have elementary-level education and unaware of proper agricultural waste management. 

“How they manage the agricultural waste is not ideal because they tend to burn it and after they burn the small area, it can cause uncontrolled wildfires because it spreads very quickly and causes a major air pollution here.”

“So even [a] small step. I believe, I strongly believe that small action every day consistently over a long period, especially when we started to gather more people, it will definitely make an impact,” says Rudo.

“And also, to the young environmentalists [all] over ASEAN, I just wanted to say, please continue what you are doing right now because you are not doing it for yourself. You are doing it for the society, people that you love, and people that share, share the same planet,” says Rudo encouragingly. 

Our featured Eco-Hero

Forest Fire Fighters (FFF) is a university project educating youths to protect the environment and themselves against forest fire-related air pollution. Based in Mae Taeng region, Chiang Mai province, Thailand, FFF focuses on bringing research knowledge and forest ranger expertise to inspire children and youths to take action on air pollution. 

Bryan Yong

Bryan Yong is a freelance environmental journalist and chief editor for EcoCupid. With a background in oceanography and experience volunteering with youth environmental NGOs in Malaysia, he brings curiosity and enthusiasm to discover Southeast Asia’s environmental movement through his stories. Bryan is an avid traveller and loves local food the most.

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