Singapore fumes after pollution hits 16-year high

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SINGAPORE, Singapore: A man takes pictures in front of the Marina Bay Sands hotel as it is blanketed by haze in Singapore on June 17, 2013. Air pollution from forest fires in Indonesia’s Sumatra island reached severe levels in Singapore on June 17, triggering a health alert in the densely populated city-state. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN

SINGAPORE — Singaporeans rolled back military training, kept cough-stricken children indoors and considered wearing protective masks to work Tuesday after a smoky haze triggered by forest fires in neighboring Indonesia caused air pollution to briefly hit its worst level in nearly 16 years.

The Pollutant Standards Index, Singapore’s main measure to determine air quality, crept into the “unhealthy” classification Monday as smoke from roaring blazes on Indonesia’s Sumatra island drifted across the sea and cast a gray pall over the city-state’s skyscrapers.

The index reached a reading of 155 Monday night, the highest level since late 1997, when officials reported a 226 reading.

On Tuesday, the reading mostly hovered between 104 and 123, still within the “unhealthy” range of between 101 and 200.

Smoke haze is a nearly annual problem for Singapore and its northern neighbor Malaysia, often beginning in the middle of the year when farmers in Indonesia seek to clear land cheaply by starting fires. The issue sometimes strains ties between the countries, with Malaysia and Singapore urging Indonesia to do more to prevent illegal burning.

Malaysia has been only lightly affected so far this year, with pollution readings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city, not breaching the unhealthy mark Tuesday. Indonesia has reportedly said part of the current problem is caused by peat blazes that firefighters are struggling to put out amid hot, dry weather.

In Singapore, defense ministry spokesman Col. Kenneth Liow said the armed forces have “reduced physical and outdoor training accordingly” after the pollution index exceeded 100.

Landscaper Hedrick Kwan blamed the haze after his two young sons started coughing as an acrid smell of burning filled the air.

“When they woke up today, it was worse,” he said. “We usually leave the windows open but now we can’t do that because of all the dust and smoke.”

The National Environment Agency has advised Singaporeans, especially the elderly, young children and people with respiratory problems, to avoid prolonged exposure outdoors.

Melissa Cheah, a financial sector worker, said her office has discussed the possibility of advising employees to wear protective face masks.

Singapore’s Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said his agency is offering assistance to Indonesia to put out the forest fires.

Hospitals and clinics are bracing for more patients in the week ahead.

“Based on what we have seen over the years, when the haze hits us, it takes about three to four days before we see all these additional patients coming in for medication,” said family physician Sarani Ng Omar, who expected a rise in asthma-related cases, nasal problems and eye inflammation.

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