Haze update: Scientists visit Orchard Road to collect pollutant data

Shoppers along Orchard Road yesterday afternoon may have encountered an odd sight: two "ghost-busters" equipped with handheld and backpack scanners.

Actually research scientists, Mexican Erik Velasco from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and Swiss Gideon Aschwanden, from the Singapore-ETH Centre's Future Cities Laboratory, have collected pollutant data along Orchard Road every weekday for nearly two months for an ongoing project. They went out to log information on a Saturday for the first time yesterday as they felt the haze would offer too useful a data set to pass up.

"The haze has provided us with some very interesting information," said Dr Velasco, 39, with what looked like a futuristic iron in each hand.

One machine measures the number of dust particles in the air, while the other breaks them down by size: from PM10, the particles measured by PSI readings all the way down to tiny PM1 particles that are especially dangerous.

For example, Dr Velasco said their readings found that at the peak of the haze on Friday evening, there were some 15 times as many pollutants in the air compared to just a fortnight ago.

Cars and industry, which have always been major contributors of pollutants, are now contributing less than 10 per cent to pollution.

"At least for now, wildfires are the main contributor of pollution," he said.

They said Singaporeans who believe shopping centres would provide some respite would be wrong - particle levels in malls are seldom much lower than outdoors because of human traffic, restaurants, and air filters that are cleaned only occasionally.

Both researchers stressed their data was preliminary and variables had to be factored in, but they have collected data in Orchard Road over 20 times.

Asked for a health tip before parting ways - the scientists were testing different forms of public transport - they stressed the importance of wearing N95 masks correctly.

"Remember, air takes the path of least resistance," smiled Mr Aschwanden, 32, whose 8kg backpack had sensors tracking everything from GPS and temperature to hydrocarbons, humidity and pressure.