BANTEAY SREI, Siem Reap — Pech Srey Mom lives by making charcoal: almost 200 bags of it every month.
She and her husband set up wood fires in the pits and all around their small home, keeping it smoking 84 hours for each batch.
A large bundle of logs becomes concentrated into a smaller pile of charcoal, which she sells around Siem Reap province for people to cook and grill with.
Srey Mom, 28, has been making charcoal now for 12 years, in a village where about a third of the 300 households make their living from the trade. It can be a taxing business, as their clothes and homes quickly turn sooty from the smoke.
The work also impacts their families’ health. The youngest of Srey Mom’s three children, Vannet, is 3 years old and suffering from respiratory problems.
“The doctor from the Kantha Bopha [Children’s] Hospital in Siem Reap told me my child is sick because of my business,” Srey Mom says. She says she is saddened seeing her daughter having to frequently spend time at the hospital instead of running around at home.
Toul Kralanh village chief Som Chandara says children seem to be worst affected from the charcoal-making, as coughs, runny noses, breathing difficulties and even pneumonia are common occurrences.
Extreme cases like Srey Mom — and her village — are only part of the danger of air pollution, however. Researchers say construction sites, garbage burning areas and charcoal grilling at food markets are also high-risk areas in Cambodia for PM2.5, or small air particles that can lead to respiratory problems, heart disease or early death. Air pollution is likely to rise in the future as vehicles and industry increase, they say.
Khan Lyna, a research coordinator at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, has studied PM2.5 across urban and rural environments, using sensors to detect air pollution levels. It’s a matter to take seriously, he says.
“High PM2.5 concentrations are dangerous because they can easily enter our lungs and respiratory systems and they can make asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems worse,” Lyna says.
PM2.5 is also linked to early death from heart and lung disease, and children and seniors are more vulnerable to air pollution due to their weak respiratory systems, he adds.
The particles originate from many sources, including vehicles, dusty roads, construction sites and open landfill. In rural areas, the biggest contributor is agricultural burning, he says.
Construction sites, garbage burning and street food markets with charcoal grilling had high PM2.5 concentrations, while burning leaves and cigarette smoking also contribute.
“Recent rapid development and urbanization in Phnom Penh leads to a high level of PM2.5,” he says.
His research from 2018 found PM2.5 in Phnom Penh at 46 micrograms per cubic meter. Busy intersections, such as the Chroy Changva roundabout and Doeum Kor market, were heavily polluted, the research found, recommending more green spaces in the city and placing covers around construction sites.
The International Association for Medical Assistance for Travellers has also classified Cambodia’s air quality as “moderately unsafe,” saying the country’s annual mean concentration of PM2.5 is 26 micrograms per cubic meter. WHO guidelines from last year recommend a PM2.5 of 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
Contributors to poor air quality in Cambodia include vehicle emissions, road dust, the garment industry, tourism, agriculture, mining, power generation and traffic congestion, the association says, adding that available data indicates Phnom Penh has consistently high levels of air pollution.
Leakhena Hang, an air quality researcher, says that at only 2.5 micrometers across, PM2.5 is around 3 percent of the thickness of hair. The particles reach deep into respiratory systems and can cause pneumonia and other diseases, she says.
PM2.5 is expected to rise in Cambodia due to increased vehicle emissions, industry and agricultural burning, she adds.
The potential for health impacts on the community can be worrying.
Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital’s deputy director, Yaneth Nguon, says pneumonia is among the top causes of death in Cambodia. Many factors can lead to pneumonia, but it is exacerbated by exposure to second-hand smoke, Nguon says.
“Children in households where the parents smoke have higher rates of pneumonia than do children in smoke-free households,” she says, adding that young children are disproportionately affected. “At Kantha Bopha hospital, we observe that children under 3 years are prone to the severity of pneumonia disease.”
According to the Global Air report by the U.S.-based Health Effects Institute, globally, PM2.5 was estimated to have contributed to 4.1 million deaths due to factors such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections in 2019, including around 4,500 deaths in Cambodia.
The report suggested that PM2.5 may be even more dangerous than other more well-known risk factors such as alcohol consumption, obesity or malnutrition, though less than tobacco and high blood pressure.
Bach Pich, in Banteay Srei’s Khnar Sandai commune, says she struggles with smoke from a nearby brick factory.
“It pollutes the air and it smells very, very bad,” Pich says.
The brick kilns use coal, and the 22-year-old mother of three is worried about their effects on residents, who have complained and protested without success.
Elsewhere in the commune, Poy Sok, the charcoal maker’s husband, says living with smoke isn’t easy, but it’s how his family gets by. The family can earn about 60,000 riel a month, or $150, from making and selling charcoal.
But the health of his 3-year-old is changing his mind about continuing, as he sees the damage air pollution can cause. “This business should be abandoned because it affects the health of children and the environment,” Sok says.