Muar residents say haze is worst ever

MUAR (Johor) - Residents in this coastal town in southern Johor are calling it the worst haze ever.

Coughing, scratchy throats and sore eyes are tell-tale signs of the haze that they have had to endure for several days now.

Mr Mohd Said Samsu owns the JT seafood restaurant next to the Sultan Ismail bridge, a town landmark.

He squinted as he tried in vain to recall the last time that he could not see what was across the Muar River.

"It is very weird, like fog, and it is only 350 metres from here to the other bank," the 60-year-old told The Straits Times.

One chief reason why residents here are having it worse this year is that Muar is located just across the Malacca Strait from Dumai, the city in the Riau province, Sumatra, that is closest to many of the hot spots causing the current haze.

"Looking at the dust on the cars, I'm afraid of what it is doing to our lungs," says bread seller Soh Hai Chwee, 47.

Not even the haze episodes of 2009 and 2010, which made travel on major highways in Peninsular Malaysia risky, were as bad especially when there had been no rain in the past two weeks.

"At least we had some breathing room then because it rained here and there. This time, you feel like you are about to suffocate," said Mr Soh, who plies his trade in the main part of Muar town.

Surgical face masks, selling for RM0.80 (S$0.32) a piece, have become a scarce commodity after a furious buying spree in the past few days.

While the government has advised people to stay indoors until the haze levels come down, some parts of the town are still abuzz with activity the whole day.

Some families ventured out, the children donning masks, while senior citizens chatted as they drank beer in coffee shops.

"Just wipe the dust off the beer bottle and table lah," said pensioner Michael Chee.

Die-hard cyclists wearing protective masks could be seen pedalling around town.

Muar's air hit the hazardous 300 level on the Air Pollutant Index (API) on Thursday.

This led local education authorities to cancel classes for two days for 15,000 school children at 211 primary and secondary schools in this town of 250,000 people.

This is not the first time that Muar residents have seen such hazardously high haze levels.

Its API reading shot up to 432 at the height of the haze episode in 2010.

The Department of Environment had to send 10,000 masks to the schools.

Under the API, a reading of 0-50 is considered good; 51 to 100 is moderate; 101 to 200 is unhealthy; and 201 to 300 is very unhealthy. A reading of 301 and above is deemed hazardous.

The highest haze levels are recorded during the period from dawn to about 3pm.

"The haze is the worst in the morning," Dr Daniel Thomas, a general physician with a clinic in town.

"Avoid taking deep breaths when you wake up," added Dr Thomas, who expects more people to seek treatment for respiratory problems.