The Big Read: From exercise to eating, S’poreans chop and change as smoke gets in their eyes
SINGAPORE — When the south-west monsoon began blowing smoke from Indonesia’s forest fires towards Singapore in August, many people here simply shrugged and continued with life as usual, convinced that this was an annual episode that would last a few days or weeks before blue skies returned.
Almost three months later, the haze lingers — despite relatively clear skies over the past few days. That may not last. There could still be a shift in wind direction that will send PSI levels headed northwards, while some experts have predicted that Singaporeans have to live with smoke-tinged air until well into the new year.
By all accounts, the haze will have an impact on the economy, sending an already weak outlook further into the doldrums, and businesses, especially those which depend on clear skies and cool nights to survive, such as eateries and other tourist destinations, are counting the costs. Indonesia has estimated that the haze could cost it as much as 475 trillion rupiah (S$47 billion).
Much less observed, however, are how the very lives of Singaporeans have changed. Interviews with dozens of people and a poll of 1,000 respondents, conducted by research consultancy Blackbox over two weeks earlier this month, tell a tale of how lives have been changed, and how anger is growing.
From health issues to disruptions to daily routine, the prolonged bout of haze has affected everyone here, one way or another, including people with medical conditions, families with elderly folk or young children, as well as fitness enthusiasts — or the regular Joe who looks forward to his weekly exercise.
For many parents with young children, it has been an extended period of anxiety that sees them having to face a dilemma: Whether to keep their kids at home at the expense of school or other activities — on an almost daily basis.
Dr Christy Toh has two sons aged eight and five. Since the haze first struck this year, the boys, who enjoy the outdoors, have had to stop playing their favourite sports such as tennis, swimming and rugby — instead, they have been cooped up at home. She has also kept her elder son from attending revision classes at school this month.
“It’s been a great inconvenience … It is also depressing (for the boys) to not be able to go outdoors,” said Dr Toh, adding that she tries to keep the air indoors in her home as clean as possible with mechanical cleaners.
In fact, Dr Toh — who is trained as a doctor and a lawyer — feels so strongly about having more measures in schools to protect children from the extended bout of haze that she has started an online petition, which TODAY reported on earlier. Since the petition started two weeks ago — calling for the Ministry of Education (MOE) to take immediate steps to haze-proof its schools — it has garnered almost 4,500 signatures. MOE has told this newspaper that it is working with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the National Environment Agency (NEA) to review its haze-management measures in schools. MOE, which noted the unusually prolonged haze season, said it will provide further updates when the review is completed.
Reiterating that children are particularly vulnerable given their high metabolic rate and immature respiratory systems, Dr Toh said she is concerned about the long-term side effects caused by breathing in fine particles from vegetation fires that can slip past the nasal passages into the lungs and blood streams. Her concerns prompted her to stop all outdoor activities for her sons, she said.
“Every cumulative exposure is going to contribute to that risk of diseases … If health takes priority, it follows that other things have to rank second,” she said. “It’s not ideal and it’s difficult. Parents are being put in a very difficult situation in deciding over health or education almost on a daily basis.”
Another parent, Madam Jennifer Chan, 42, has also stopped her seven-year-old daughter — who has developed asthmatic bronchitis because of the haze — from going to school. A short walk from a restaurant to the family car, for example, would trigger a two-hour coughing fit for her daughter, said Mdm Chan, who works as a chief financial officer.
Reflecting a common sentiment among parents, Ms Katherine Wee, who is a research analyst and whose daughter’s eczema has been made worse by the haze, added: “As I sit in my air-conditioned office and look at the haze, I feel guilty … I don’t want to (leave the office) during lunchtime, but I let my daughter sit in (a non-air-conditioned classroom) for seven hours.”
The Blackbox survey, which polled a nationally representative sample, was conducted via face-to-face interviews with respondents aged 15 and above. Among other findings, six in 10 of the respondents indicated that they have had to adjust their lifestyle because of the haze, and about a fifth said they have an immediate family member who has had to visit the doctor because of the smog.
In recent weeks, the concentration of PM2.5 — fine particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter — has reached unhealthy levels for sustained periods. In a report published earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) said research has shown that PM2.5 particles have adverse impact on health from both short-term and long-term exposure.
The MOH website states that short-term exposure to haze particles can affect the heart and lungs of people with existing conditions such as asthma, while healthy individuals may be susceptible to eye, nose and throat irritation. International studies have also shown that long-term exposure to the particles may increase the risk of heart conditions, reduced lung development and chronic respiratory diseases in children.
Ms Adelene Koh, a stay-at-home mother, used to have asthma as a child but she has been experiencing asthma attacks recently because of the haze, despite wearing a mask. She said this has made it difficult for her to take her eldest daughter, four, to her pre-school — which is a 10-minute walk away from their home — and fetch her back.
Retiree Mrs Judy Woon, who also has asthma, said she has seen the doctor three times over the past two months. However, she is still having a persistent cough and sore throat. Going out for necessary appointments, such as to the doctor or bank, also leaves her with a tightness in her chest.
Mindful of the health impact of the haze, Mr Ngoh Seh Suan, 36, who works in the insurance industry, has spent about S$650 on air purifiers, filters, a particle counter — an air quality measuring device — and an array of masks including one for industrial use. Mr Ngoh takes the counter with him to the places that he frequents. “The scary part is the effects, if any, don’t appear right away … Why not take a pre-emptive action?” he said.
With clear skies and fresh air less of an occurrence these days, the simple act of putting on running shoes and pounding the pavements can no longer be taken for granted.
Blogger Pris Chew, 27, voiced her frustration at how several outdoor races that she signed up, for such as the Yellow Ribbon Prison 10km competitive run last month and the New Balance 5km race a week ago, turned into non-competitive walking events because of the haze.
“The haze is not only affecting races but also the training. It’s made it impossible to train outdoors,” she said. “When you’re running on the roads and trails, you’re exposed to the elements such as the wind that you would not get on a treadmill, and that helps to acclimatise to running in the heat in Singapore as well.”
Mr Kishen Rengaraj, 24, who plays competitive hockey for the Singapore Cricket Club, said the main hockey league for top-tier teams in Singapore has already had to cancel two games since last month. His team also had to scrap three training sessions so far.
With many Singaporeans staying indoors or minimising their exposure to the smog, some businesses have taken a significant hit and are mulling over ways to deal with the situation. For example, Pasta Fresca said sales at its Boat Quay outlet, which has a large alfresco dining area, have dropped 15 per cent and it is looking at expanding its delivery services.
Mr Kenny Ng, owner of a horticulture farm and open-air restaurant in Kranji, told TODAY that the eatery had to cancel dinner service twice this month out of consideration for his employees’ health.
Mrs Ivy Singh Lim, who runs Bollywood Veggies in Kranji, said business has dropped drastically. “Every week, we do at least S$25,000 to S$30,000 worth of business, especially during this period when there is a lot of holidays. But it dropped to about S$10,000 a week for about a month. We’re doing half what we used to do and some days, 80 per cent of the school events are cancelled,” she said.
Adding that she hopes the Government can step in and provide some financial support for affected businesses, she said: “There’s nothing much (businesses) can do. You can have any kind of campaign, but (prospective customers) won’t come out.”
With Singapore still shrouded in haze each passing day, the frustrations among people here are mounting and some are taking the matter into their own hands by calling for and supporting boycotts of products from companies linked to the forest fires in Indonesia. Various major retailers and supermarket chains here have already taken off the shelves products sourced from Asia Pulp & Paper Group, which has been linked to the forest fires.
While the Blackbox survey found that 71 per cent of the respondents agreed that the Singapore Government is doing everything it can to get Indonesia to tackle the problem, a similar proportion (72 per cent) felt that retailer boycotts are “more effective than political pressure”.
Still, just over half (55 per cent) felt that the boycotts are effective in exerting pressure on companies, with 50 per cent of the respondents saying they will reconsider their shopping behaviour based on the involvement of firms in the haze problem.
TODAY had reported earlier this month that established non-governmental organisations as well as groups that were formed in recent years in response to the haze problem, have come out in full force, urging consumers and businesses to play their part in the fight. Other groups and individuals are also speaking up on social media and calling for boycotts against companies responsible for the forest fires in Indonesia.
Some experts had said it will be a long trudge to end the haze problem via consumer action, but there is optimism that the nascent efforts here will pay off eventually.
While this is the first time in decades that Singapore has been affected by serious haze over a sustained period, Assistant Professor Winston Chow, an urban climatologist at the National University of Singapore’s geography department, said prolonged bouts of smog will not be uncommon in future because of climate change and weather phenomenon such as the El Nino, which is currently causing a dry spell in the region.
“That is not to say it will happen every year from now on, but what I’m trying to suggest is that the possibility of drier conditions (in Indonesia) is increased because of both climate change and changes to these oscillations (such as El Nino),” said Asst Prof Chow.
With experts not counting out the possibility of Singapore having to deal with months of poor air quality in the future, there are calls for the Government to relook some of the contingency plans — which MOE, MOH and NEA are already doing for schools.
As part of MOE’s existing haze management measures developed over the years, all schools have sufficient enclosed spaces to house students when necessary, and are also equipped with air purifiers.
School activities proceed as normal when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) is below 100. At higher PSI levels, schools will minimise or avoid outdoor activities such as sports activities, and will also place students who are unwell or with pre-existing lung and heart conditions in air-conditioned rooms with air purifiers. If the PSI reaches “hazardous” levels during school hours, schools will scale down lessons and the students will be asked to go to air-conditioned rooms or enclosed indoor spaces with purifiers, such as the library.
MOE will also consider school closure, when the health advisory the next day indicates that the 24-hour PSI is expected to be at the hazardous level, as it did on Sept 25.
Dr Erik Velasco, from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, said there is a need to establish clearer measures to minimise public exposure to the haze. He noted that the Government’s decision to shut schools on Sept 25 was not based on any official regulations and more can be done to protect the health of workers such as those in the construction sector.
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infection disease doctor in private practice, pointed out that research has shown that prolonged exposure to the air when the PSI reaches 100 can cause cardiovascular risks. A 24-hour PSI reading of 101 to 200 is categorised as “unhealthy”.
Dr Leong felt that taking precautionary measures when the PSI reaches 200 is too late. “Should we continue the current steps, we may have inadvertently harmed several children for several years until the science is published,” he said.
Members of Parliament TODAY spoke to agreed that there is a need to review and enhance existing measures to mitigate the impact of haze.
Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Liang Eng Hwa said the prolonged bout of haze Singapore is experiencing provides a “good learning opportunity” for the Government.
As for extending help to businesses, Marine Parade GRC MP Seah Kian Peng felt that this could be tricky, even though he empathised with the affected firms. “It’s coming up with (ways) to help them and in what form … so that whatever crises that hit us in different forms … The approach should be consistent. Otherwise, it will create more challenges going forward,” he said.