Haze in Malaysia 2015: Same Old Script, New Solutions
A hazy metropolitan scene in Kuala Lumpur by Storm Crypt @flickr
This article is an exclusive contribution from Eliani Ezani. Eliani holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Health and is conducting research on airborne pollution for a PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK. Originally from Malaysia, Eliani combines her personal experience with scientific research to analyze the problem of haze in Malaysia, describe its effects on human health and recommend action to combat the haze epidemic.
I vividly recall attending a class on air pollution and climate change during my master in Glasgow. My lecturer, who is my PhD supervisor now, showed a picture that portrayed the haze situation in Kuala Lumpur during his visit in 1997. The image was clear, and I throw my thoughts into the sea. I couldn’t seem to shake my mixed emotions. I tried to recall and reflect on my unpleasant experience in Kuala Lumpur during the haze of 2006. There was the bland smell of dusty particles, the smoke pressing my breathing passage, the stinging and tearing in my eyes. Even social media was not widely used during that time, there were no status updates on Facebook and Twitter about the haze!
This annual man-made disaster, caused by uncontrolled biomass burning in Indonesia, has wafted over Malaysia and Singapore for more than 20 years now. Haze in Malaysia has caused an increase of hospital admission by 2.4 per 10,000 people and brought an economic loss of nearly $91,000 each year to the country. This is an unfinished matter demanding immediate mitigating action, and Malaysia is not alone in combating this issue. There are other 9 ASEAN countries that can help bear the burden.
What can ASEAN Do?
- Respect Environmental Law and Policy – The ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution will take action against those who breach the agreement, and help find a way to control illegal open burning. How long can some countries act with impunity?
- Set a Standard Air Quality Across ASEAN – Establish a health-based standard and objective for air pollutant ratings. ASEAN can learn from the European Union, which has set emissions reduction targets and limited the acceptable level of air pollution. Their members must monitor these levels.
- ASEAN Air Pollution and Climate Change Research Centre – set up a research centre that collates air pollution data across ASEAN and creates international collaborations between higher institutions. Two heads are better than one!
What can Malaysia Do?
- Refine Air Quality Standards – The risk of haze should be assessed by air pollutant particles that effect human health, with special regard to children and vulnerable groups. Fine particulates (PM2.5) have the worst adverse effects on human health, but are not yet included in the Air Pollution Index standard. The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry in their press conference mentioned that the full installation of the system to capture fine particulate data is expected by 2017.
- Control Localized Emissions and Open Burning Activities – Emissions from urban traffic in the city center and open burning from rural areas make the haze situation even worse. Urban traffic management control can be applied to limit the emissions of gases and particulate matter from vehicle traffic i.e Low Emissions Zones. Open burning should only be legalized with strict regulation.
- Public Health Education and Promotion – Keep citizens up-to-date with local haze information (via social media i.e Twitter, Facebook, government and local authority websites and television) and advise the public to seek medical advice when appropriate. Citizens should be reminded that the health effects of haze rely on their current health, the air pollution index level, the contact time with haze and the amount of outdoor activities participated in.
- Prepare Haze Alert Systems and Toolkits – Establish a reliable and standardized alert system via social media apps. Have the public prepared with N95 face masks that filter out small particles, and establish Public Health Preparedness Clinics during haze situations.
Whatever the situation, there must be some way to solve this unsettled issue. We need to control the source of haze in Malaysia, not defend from its effects. We don’t want to hear the same old story every year, so we are calling for urgent action. Let’s bring hope to making Malaysia’s air fit to breathe!
- Othman, J., Sahani, M., Mahmud, M. and Sheikh Ahmad, M. (2014). Transboundary smoke haze pollution in Malaysia: Inpatient health impacts and economic valuation. Environmental Pollution, 189, pp.194-201.
- WHO Air quality guidelines for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. 2005. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/69477/1/WHO_SDE_PHE_OEH_06.02_eng.pdf
Bachelor of Science (Honors) Environmental Health, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia
Master of Science Environmental Health Science, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
Currently pursuing 2nd year of PhD in Civil & Environmental Engineering in Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow