BANGKOK • Toxic fumes from the Indonesian fires that have spread a choking haze across South-east Asia may be doing more harm to human and plant health than officials have indicated, scientists measuring the pollution say.
Farmers are expecting a poor harvest because plants have too little sunlight for normal photosynthesis, while government figures of half a million people sickened by the smoke are only the "tip of the iceberg", said Dr Louis Verchot, a scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research.
Meanwhile, the fires are converting carbon stored in burning peatlands into greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change.
"When the sun goes up, the whole world is yellow. On the worst day, the visibility was less than 100m," said Dr Verchot, who led a workshop on the crisis in Central Kalimantan province last month with about 20 scientists from Indonesia, the United States and Britain.
Dr Verchot said they had found harmful gases in the air including ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia, formaldehyde, nitric oxide and methane.
"Without a mask, I don't know how people live in this stuff," he said via telephone from Jakarta.
Professor Martin Wooster of King's College London, who joined Dr Verchot on the trip, tested his equipment in his hotel room, several kilometres from the fires, and found 30 molecules of carbon monoxide per million molecules of air - enough to trigger a household carbon monoxide detector.
Near the burning peatlands, Prof Wooster's preliminary data indicates more than 1,000 microgrammes of particulate matter per cu m of air, and at times 2,000.
The US Environmental Protection Agency considers any amount over 300 microgrammes per cu m hazardous.
Meanwhile, an endangered Borneo orangutan and its baby escaped from raging fires that destroyed their forests habitat - only to be attacked by angry villagers, an animal rights group said yesterday.
The malnourished mother and its youngster were found distressed in West Kalimantan when they were saved by an animal rights group as locals hurled rocks at them.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE