Malaysia's worst haze in 16 years

 
City of Shah Alam is covered with haze on June 23, 2013. Several parts of Malaysia had been declared emergency status as smoke from neighbouring Indonesia pollutes the air in Malaysia. -- PHOTO: DEMOTIX

MALAYSIA woke up yesterday to its worst levels of haze in 16 years, which forced the government to declare emergency status for two Johor towns, and to shut schools in Kuala Lumpur, Selangor and Pahang, as well as the coastal town of Port Dickson.

Many residents in the Johor town of Muar were shocked yesterday morning when the Air Pollutant Index (API) hit 746 - more than twice the standard hazardous reading and a level not seen since 1997, when Sarawak recorded an API reading of 860.

In Malacca, two areas registered API readings above 400.

Malaysia's haze readings are different from those in Singapore, which uses the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI). The same five pollutants are measured, but the scales differ in the standards used to calibrate key components such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

As pollution readings in Muar and the nearby town of Ledang shot well past the maximum range for both the PSI and API scales, Prime Minister Najib Razak swiftly declared emergency status for the two towns.

The local authorities ordered schools, government offices, factories, plantations and construction sites to close immediately.

The use of private vehicles was restricted, all land clearing was stopped and a ban on open burning was enforced. However, clinics, supermarkets, hawkers and providers of essential services were allowed to stay open.

The government also extended precautionary measures to schools in the states of Selangor and Pahang, and in Kuala Lumpur and Port Dickson.

The capital, previously spared the choking haze that had enveloped Singapore and southern Malaysia, witnessed hazy conditions and reduced visibility yesterday.

Five areas in Selangor - home to most people who work in Kuala Lumpur - had "unhealthy" levels of haze. Port Klang registered the highest reading of 214.

"The haze situation continued to worsen as of 5pm, and schools have been ordered to close as a precautionary measure, since the bad air quality would affect the health of the students," said Natural Resources and Environment Minister G. Palanivel in a statement yesterday evening.

He advised parents to keep their children indoors and to use face masks if they must go outside.

The deteriorating haze situation has angered many Malaysians, some of whom feel the government has been slow in its response so far.

Datuk Seri Palanivel is set to meet with his Indonesian counterpart on Wednesday, but that is not soon enough for many.

"Please go and meet your counterpart by Monday, not Wednesday. Many Malaysians will have choked to death by then," wrote Mr Eddy Wong on Mr Palanivel's Facebook page.

The opposition said it will make the haze a priority when Malaysia's Parliament sits today.

In a statement yesterday, opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang said it is "imperative that Najib should take this issue to the highest levels".

"The time has come for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to fly to Jakarta for an emergency meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the haze catastrophe choking millions in the three Asean countries of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia."


Background story

Singapore's PSI versus Malaysia's API

BOTH scales were derived from the Pollutant Standards Index developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Malaysia modified the index after conducting its own studies. Singapore published separate data on PM2.5 - particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter - to reflect the concentration of such fine particles in the atmosphere.

The two indexes measure the same five pollutants, namely sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and PM10, or particulate matter of 10 microns or less.

They differ in their calibration of three of the pollutants - sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone.

However, the standards used in the two indexes to measure carbon monoxide and PM10 - the main pollutants in haze - are identical.

The two indexes will give the same readings up to a level of 50. Beyond that, the API will give a higher reading than the PSI for the same amount of soot and ash in the air.

The maximum reading of 500 on the PSI comes to about 577 on the API.

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