A Commentary By Sakina Mohamed
KUALA LUMPUR: A thick blanket of haze enveloped several parts of Malaysia last Saturday, but seemed to not be reflected in the Air Pollutant Index (API) readings online.
Unhappy Malaysians took their ire to social media, spreading claims ranging from the API reading being 12 hours behind to it being purposefully manipulated.
Further strengthening such speculation was the distinct difference between API readings in Singapore to the just neighbouring Johor.
CLEARING THE AIR
The matter was exacerbated when PKR Kelana Jaya MP Wong Chen attributed the overt discrepancy in API measurements between the two countries to Malaysia using a “lower standard of API measurement”.
“Most countries, including Singapore and Indonesia now measure particulate matter of 2.5 microns or PM2.5.
“Malaysia is still measuring particulate matter of 10 microns or PM10. This practice results in overall and substantially lower measurements in Malaysia,” he said in a statement.
Wong said as a result of that Malaysians would have a more positive but “illusory picture” of the nation’s air quality.
The Department of Environment (DOE) has denied such claims and maintains that it has not been watering down API readings to placate the public.
Its director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan clarified that the difference in readings was due to Singapore’s inclusion of a sixth parameter in determining the state of air quality.
However, it did not deny Wong’s quoting of a 2012 media report that said the DOE had planned to implement the PM2.5 measure next year, under its Clean Air Action Plan.
A news report today quoted Halimah as saying that the department was in the final stages of working out the budget to include the sixth component.
While it is commendable for the DOE to move to a better standard of measuring air quality, we must not forget that the main concern with the haze is its impact on public health and the domino effect of that on the nation.
It is difficult for the average Malaysian to gauge the level of air quality other than concluding from what they see with their naked eye and how their bodies react to the smog.
However, the DOE has explained that visibility levels are not reflected in API readings, which only measure dust particulates smaller than PM10. So a thick haze may not be a measure of how unhealthy the air is.
Visibility levels are updated in real time while API readings are updated over a span of 24 hours. This would explain why unhealthy readings take time to show in the hourly API updates, and why visibility levels do not correspond with API readings.
Thus it is unsurprising that the majority of Malaysians rely very much on the government and its mechanisms to tell them when to don a haze mask and when to keep their children out of school.
An inaccurate or delayed reading could result in a number of things. Those unaware of an unhealthy air quality may still go about their routines without a particulate mask. Later, many of them would find themselves lining up at public hospitals seeking treatment for breathing problems.
Parents would be forced to take leave to attend to their ailing children. Companies might find some of their operations crippled due to the sudden number of employees taking leave. All of these indirectly add to the socio-economic burden of the country.
Delayed updates on API readings also pose another problem. When school closures are announced at the eleventh hour, how do parents come up with alternative arrangements for their children while they are at work?
Some parents may be lucky enough to have understanding employers and extra leave days. Others, though, may have run out of precious leave days or are simply in a work environment without leeway for such emergencies.
Some, whose employers view sudden leaves as detrimental to company productivity, may even find their jobs on the line.
The haze is a recurrent problem which root cause has yet to be tackled over the years, neither are there any indication that it would be resolved in the near future. The best that Malaysia can do is to spare no effort at employing the latest measures to alert its citizen and put them on guard, as the benefits of this move would far outweigh the costs.
(This commentary is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect BERNAMA s stand or views on the matter)