NEA creates bands to simplify PM2.5 readings

Descriptors for one-hour readings will help the public understand figures, plan activities

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.

While the agency has been publishing such one-hour readings since 2014, it is now providing breakdowns of what constitutes normal to very high levels of one-hour PM2.5 concentrations.

For instance, the range of 0 to 55 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) is described as "normal", while anything above 250 mcg/m3 will be described as "very high".

The Straits Times understands that the bands and descriptors were introduced after members of the public suggested having a guide to PM2.5 readings after last year's haze episode. Still, the bands do not state what levels are healthy or not, unlike the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI), which is used by the authorities here as the reference for health advisories.

  • Met Service's new tools offer timely updates

  • The Meteorological Service Singapore (MSS) has been using new weather-monitoring systems so that the public can receive better and more timely updates of haze and weather conditions.

    The systems can be used, for instance, to detect ash from volcanic eruptions in the region, as well as the thickness of smoke-haze coming into Singapore.

    Yesterday, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli was given a presentation and demonstration of the new technologies at the MSS headquarters at Changi Airport Terminal 2.

    Among them is the Himawari-8 satellite rolled out in July last year. It can provide updates on haze and weather every 10 minutes, compared with hourly updates from the previous satellite MTSAT-2.

    It can also produce images with higher spatial resolution for better detection of smoke haze.

    The MSS also recently installed an aerosol lidar (light detection and ranging) on Jurong Island, which can measure the thickness of smoke haze to heights of about 12km.

    In addition, a wind Lidar has been installed to measure the speed and direction of winds at up to 12km above ground level.

    These Lidars use light from a laser to collect data on particles in the atmosphere , as well as wind speeds and direction.

    Research scientist Erik Velasco of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, said the new equipment will help scientists to better forecast and understand haze events triggered by wildfires in the region.

    "Given the transboundary origin of the smoke-haze and political difficulties to solve the problem, Singapore needs to develop measures to protect its citizens from this hazard," he said.

    "The best way of doing it is investing in instrumentation and models to predict the arrival and impact of the haze's plumes in advance."

    Carolyn Khew

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, who made the announcement yesterday, said there is "no strong medical study" to show the impact of short-term exposure to PM2.5 particles on one's health.

"In any case, if you are sensitive to such particles, or you have some form of ailment that makes you sensitive to such particles, consult your doctor," he added.

PM2.5 pollutants are smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, or a 30th of the diameter of a human hair.

It is one of six pollutants, including carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, the PSI measures. Long and regular exposure to PM2.5 is linked to higher risk of death from complications such as lung cancer or heart disease.

With the roll-out of bands and descriptors for one-hour PM2.5 readings, the three-hour PSI reading will be phased out by the year end.

Associate Professor Koh Tieh Yong, a weather scientist at SIM University, said the one-hour PM2.5 readings are a more "direct and sensitive measure" of fine-particulate pollution than the three-hour PSI. "The public should pay attention to the frequency and length of exposure as much as the PM2.5 descriptor bands," he added.

If both the one-hour PM2.5 readings and 24-hour PSI readings are in the high range, the public should refrain from going outdoors, said Professor Philip Eng, senior consultant respiratory physician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital. "But if there is a disconnect, then my advice is to take the worse of the two."

However, Dr Erik Velasco of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology said that having different air quality indicators can be confusing and the one-hour PM2.5 bandings do not provide any recommendations.

Ms Nicole Tan, 26, an early childhood educator who has two young children, said the bands are helpful. "The main thing I look out for in a reading is the PM2.5 concentration levels. That's usually my deciding factor when I want to take a trip out during haze periods," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'NEA creates bands to simplify PM2.5 readings'. Print Edition | Subscribe