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PM2.5 provides real picture of haze hazards: experts

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 8 (Bernama) -- Local environmental experts want the government to speed up efforts to upgrade its Air Pollutant Index (API) to include readings of fine dust measuring 2.5 microns (PM2.5).

They say the yearly occurrence of the haze and the seriousness of this year's episode warranted the need to have readings of smaller air particles as continuous exposure to fine particulate matter could lead to serious health issues over the long term.

Health expert Datuk Dr NKS Tharmaseelan was recently quoted as saying that continuous exposure to the haze would lead to chronic respiratory problems, particularly in children whose lungs were more susceptible to the fine dust.

Currently, Malaysia's air quality monitoring stations read and measure fine dust of less than 10 microns (PM10), unlike Singapore which had adopted an additional PM2.5 reading since 2014.

This had resulted in a stark difference in the API readings recorded by Singapore and neighboring Johor, causing much confusion among the public, with some quarters even accusing Malaysia of manipulating the readings.

Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Hamim Samuri has been reported as saying that his ministry was pushing for all 52 monitoring stations in the country to include the measurement of PM2.5 in two years' time and that this matter was even outlined in the 11th Malaysian Plan (2016-2020).

He also said that it would take longer for Malaysia to fully implement it nationwide, compared to Singapore, because the island state was smaller in size and has fewer monitoring stations.

Defending the current measurement system used by Malaysia, he said it was consistent with the international standard protocol developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).

Vital to have PM2.5 readings

As of now, 12 air quality monitoring stations have been set up in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Melaka, Kuala Terengganu, Tanah Merah, Langkawi, Ipoh, Kuching and Penang to measure PM2.5.

Head of Universiti Teknologi MARA's Environment Research Centre Prof Dr Ku Halim Ku Hamid is all for the speedier adoption of the PM2.5 measurement protocol, saying that fine particles could pose dangerous health hazards if inhaled into the respiratory system.

He said the haze - created by forest fires and illegal land-clearing activities on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan - that has enveloped Malaysia and the neighboring region consisted of fine and lightweight particles, which were injurious to health as they were capable of entering deep into the lungs of humans.

"When burning takes place, the light airborne smoke particles are easily carried to other areas by the wind, while the heavier and coarse particles (that are not easily inhaled into the lungs) tend to remain at the source of burning," he told Bernama.

Ku Halim said the toxic hazards posed by the haze particles were also a major cause for concern, more so if chemical agents had been used to fuel the burning activities.

"This is why Malaysia really needs to use a system that can measure very fine particulates to give a true picture of the situation, considering that the haze has become an annual occurrence in this country.

"I'm sure we already have the capability to measure (the PM2.5 particulates) but it's not being used extensively... by right, more in-depth research should be carried out to obtain more accurate readings (of the API)," he said.

Early warning

In describing Singapore's PM2.5 measurement system as a more relevant and significant way to evaluate the hazardous levels of the haze, Ku Halim said: "The system we are using is outdated. Readings of finer particulates will enable us to issue early warnings to the people to safeguard their health."

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's School of Environmental and Natural Resource Sciences lecturer Associate Prof Dr Mohd Talib Latif said while it was necessary for Malaysia to adopt a more effective API measurement system, the government should not be blamed for adhering to the current system.

"Maybe there are impediments to using the new technology extensively as it involves costs and other factors.

"Even Singapore only implemented it (PM2.5 measurement) last year... I understand that Thailand still uses PM10, the same measurement used by Malaysia," he said.

According to Mohd Talib, the PM10 measurement was adequate enough to indicate the hazardous levels of the air quality.

"On average, 60 per cent of 10 micron particulate matter consists of PM2.5... If the air quality reading is 100, then 60 per cent is (made up of) PM2.5.

"The important thing is for people to exercise care when unhealthy readings are recorded because fine particles of below RM2.5 can be easily inhaled into their lungs," he added.

Protect buildings from haze

Meanwhile, each time the haze gets worse, the public is advised to wear masks and cut down their outdoor activities. But then, they are not exactly spared of its ill-effects even if they remain indoors as the haze particles can drift into homes and buildings through any opening or crevice.

Manufacturing industries - especially those involving semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices and life sciences - are particularly impacted by the haze as they use clean rooms for their operations. A clean room is a controlled environment that has a low level of pollutants like dust, airborne microbes, aerosol particles and chemical vapors.

Facilities coordinator at a private semiconductor firm, Mohammad Zulfakar Mahadi said although the clean room was an enclosed facility, dust particles could still drift into it each time someone opened the door to enter or leave the room.

"It has to have a controlled environment with a particle count of less than 10,000 particles of 0.5 micrometer in diameter a minute," he said.

He also said that in hazy conditions, it was possible for large quantities of pollutants and particles to enter office buildings and shopping complexes, no thanks to their automatic sliding doors which open widely.

"The normal manual doors are better as you don't have to open them so widely," he said. Mohammad Zulfakar also suggested that the fan speed in air conditioning units be increased in order to create positive pressure in the room.

"When the air pressure builds up in a room, the excess air is forced out when the door is opened, thus making it difficult for outside particles to enter the room," he explained.

He added that maximizing the fan speed in air conditioning units also resulted in better air circulation in an enclosed area.

"It's also important to ensure that the filters in air conditioners are kept clean to enable them to do a good job of filtering the dust particles in the air," he said.

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