How to go about their daily activities during particularly bad phases of the haze is a preoccupation that becomes habitual for Singaporeans when it occurs regularly. Hence, it is useful that the National Environment Agency (NEA) has introduced bands and descriptors for one-hour concentration readings of fine particles called PM2.5 to help the public make sense of the readings and plan their immediate activities. The agency has been publishing such one-hour readings since 2014, but it it is now providing breakdowns of what constitutes normal to very high levels of one-hour PM2.5 concentrations. Those who are sensitive to such particles in particular will benefit from the information. It will alert the public to the dangers of long and regular exposure, which would need to be monitored. A study that tracked more than 66,000 seniors in Hong Kong has found that prolonged exposure to fine air pollutants is linked to a higher risk of dying by any cancer. While studies have linked lung cancer with long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, this study said that the risk of dying from any cancer could be increased.
The NEA's move demonstrates the need for greater awareness of the consequences of the haze. Transboundary haze pollution is a key concern in Asean, where Singapore and Malaysia have suffered badly and repeatedly from the smoke caused by the burning of forests in Indonesia. While Asean has made progress in creating a framework to tackle the problem, implementation may not be uniform. Singaporeans must do whatever they can within their borders to prepare for and survive what clearly is an environmental threat to their well-being. Haze-free periods must not lull people into complacency.
Environmental consciousness is a global calling, of course. The International Energy Agency warned recently that premature deaths from air pollution would continue to rise till 2040 unless changes were made to the way energy was produced and used. As it is, around 6.5 million deaths around the world are attributed each year to poor air quality inside and outside. In fact, this is the world's fourth-largest threat to human health behind high blood pressure, dietary risks and smoking. Astonishingly, however, the quality of air hardly attracts the attention paid to the other causes, perhaps because it is seen as a problem about which little can be done personally. Besides, these PM2.5 particles are often out of sight and mind. What should drive the message home is the realisation that pollutants can cause lung cancer, strokes and heart disease over the long term, as well as trigger symptoms such as heart attacks that kill more rapidly. Singapore generally has clean air but standards can be improved. The haze is a reminder of the crucial contribution the environment makes to people's lives.