Air That Hurts Our Lungs Is Back Once Again With The Haze


Once again, the haze has descended upon us like a grey blanket, contaminating our air and infiltrating deep into our bodies. It’s so habitual that for some of us, it’s almost a ho-hum business. Same old, same old every year, yeah?

There hasn’t been much traction since I first reported on the haze back in the early 1990s. Once again, the issue was discussed by Asean members – a sub-regional ministerial meeting was held this week in Brunei. I didn’t hold my breath with anticipation over the outcome.

Nevertheless, it’s infuriating. Especially now. Lately, I’ve been running regularly and running hard, increasing the pace and length of my runs. I’ve worked hard to build up my body over months. But strenuous outdoor exercise isn’t advised in hazy conditions.

That’s my own gripe. But there are other greater, far-reaching – and mostly unseen – health and economic impact from the haze. Definitely not ho-hum. The global cost of air pollution is US$225bil (RM941.9bil) in lost labour and trillions in medical costs, environmental organisation Greenpeace estimates.

It’s what is invisible to us – those microscopic, fine particulate matter – that particularly matter (pardon the pun).

Hazy air is back to damage our lungs again

Indonesian environmental activists at the Central Jakarta court last month just before filing a lawsuit against the government over Jakarta’s toxic air pollution. Citizens are taking authorities to court over toxic air around the globe. Photo: AFP

Particles less than 10 microns in size can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs, says the World Health Organisation (WHO). But even worse are the really tiny particles, those below 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5, often produced by burning.

These microscopic particles – so small that 30 of them make up the width of a human hair – can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the blood system, WHO says. They ravage the body, severely irritating the nervous system, raising the risk of heart and respiratory diseases and causing cancer.

Every year, exposure to fine particulates kills seven million people globally, WHO estimates. It’s a critical factor (more so than alcohol or physical activity) in about one-quarter of global deaths from heart disease and stroke.

Oh, and buildings aren’t safe havens – fine particulates enter (and accumulate) in buildings through doors and gaps and in air-conditioned areas through fresh air intake.

A year ago, we didn’t even collect PM2.5 data (only PM10). Now this is a key pollutant in haze, so this means we were missing the full picture. This was why differences had appeared in official air quality data between Johor and Singapore, which started measuring PM2.5 in 2014.

Since August 2018, PM2.5 data has been included in Malaysia’s Air Pollution Index (API), which also measures other pollutants (nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and carbon monoxide). But what may be grim for PM2.5 concentrations can look acceptable on an API index that aggregates and averages pollutants. This has caused considerable confusion.

In China, cities were pushed to release PM2.5 data after such data circulating on social media conflicted with official data. There was even a rock festival called “PM2.5”.

While air quality indexes vary, PM2.5 concentrations don’t. WHO is working on increasing monitoring of PM2.5, since it is most linked to death and disease. A WHO-backed global awareness-raising campaign, Breathe Life, links to a database on PM2.5 in cities (look up breathelife2030.org).

Four Malaysian municipalities have joined Breathe Life. The reading for Petaling Jaya on Friday (Aug 9) afternoon was clearly unhealthy, at 2.5 times higher than WHO’s safe level.

Singapore’s National Environment Agency notes that PM2.5 levels fluctuate throughout the day, so hourly levels could guide outdoor activities – like deciding whether I run or not that day.

Making information available is critical for mobilising action. This week, the Asean Specialised Meteorological Centre revealed a recent rise in hotspots, including 42 in Sumatra and a few in Kalimantan, and peat fires in Pekan, Pahang, and Kuala Baram in Miri, Sarawak. We should whack the hell out of local companies responsible.

In Indonesia, the courts have called for more resources to fight the issue and to name and prosecute all plantations where fires occurred.
Court action is making waves elsewhere.

The European Commission is taking leading European Union member states – including Germany and France – to court for breaching regional air pollution limits. In Germany, environmental groups are suing local governments for allowing air pollution, pushing cities to ban diesel cars.

Clearing our skies has a greater long-term impact. Black carbon – fine particulates produced from burning diesel, coal and biomass – is a major contributor to climate change. So tackling the haze helps fight climate change.

But time is running out. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we need dramatic changes to contain global warming below the critical 1.5°C limit, beyond which we could face catastrophic change in searing heat, drought and extreme weather events.

If we don’t act now, we could see the impact of the haze in a climate crisis 20 years down the road.


Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.





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