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Living in Singapore

The haze and our health: how bad is it and what can we do?

If you’ve lived in Singapore for more than a couple of years, you’ve probably come to dread the annual slash and burn season where farmers in Indonesia quite literally torch their fields causing widespread air pollution (or ‘haze’) over Singapore.

It’s been hanging around since early September and now, more than a month on, shows no sign of leaving. Most years, it’s gone within a few weeks but in 1997, the Indonesian forest fire season was so bad that heavy haze persisted well into the early parts of 1998. These fires too, were largely attributed to the incredibly strong El Niño seen that year. And, a horrible fact for all of us, the El Niño effect this year is forecast to be the strongest on record. Which means the haze is here to stay – possibly until at least November.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking you were waking up in Beijing each morning!

Where is this pollution coming from?

While it would be simple to point all fingers at Indonesia as the only contributor to Singapore’s air pollution, that really is not the case. An article posted on the Channel News Asia site in mid-September 2015 pointed out that much of the year-round air pollution in Singapore comes from sources much closer to home. In the article, Dr Erik Velasco from Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology highlighted, “We have over one million cars, the second largest refinery complex in the world, all ships coming from China to Europe…we have factories…we have construction. So we have many types of emission sources (and) we are exposed to those pollutants.” Of all of these pollutants, it’s the fine particulate matter that has the greatest effect on human health.

What makes it so bad for our health?

The Singapore National Environmental Agency defines and tracks six major, potentially harmful air pollutants: Sulphur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter (PM10) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO) and ozone (O3).

These have an almost immediate negative impact on it. For example, have you noticed that it may be harder to breathe when there is more pollution in the air? What about sensitive eyes or even a dulled sense of taste? These symptoms have all been noticed by people exposed to higher levels of air pollution. Ask anyone with chronic respiratory disease like asthma or COPD and they’ll likely tell you how when the air pollution is bad in their city, they definitely notice that they have a much harder time breathing, as air pollution is known to aggravate lung conditions.

So increased air pollution causes immediate issues, including trouble breathing and allergy-like symptoms, but it’s the effects that exposure can have to one’s health in the long term that has many medical experts worrying. In 2013 the International Agency for Research on Cancer, along with the WHO, classified air pollution as a carcinogen and in a 2013 report found a strong correlation between air pollution and lung cancer.

There’s an economic impact too

Putting the issue of our health aside for a second, the other major impact we have seen with this often-brutal air pollution in the past few months is the economic impact. Take a walk down to Boat Quay at lunchtime or after work and restaurants that are usually packed are nearly empty. Beyond that, the F1, one of Singapore’s largest tourist draws, was a much more muted affair this year and it’s clear that many businesses are struggling. Will this have a major impact on the economy? No one can really tell, but unfortunately, should the air pollution continue at these currently high levels, many businesses could fail.

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The El Niño effect this year is forecast to be the strongest on record, so the haze is here to stay – possibly until November.


What can be done about the air pollution?

Many government bodies in Singapore are starting to take action to reverse, or at the very least minimize, the amount of pollution blanketing the city. Of course, this will be a slow process. Luckily there are a number of things you can do to limit any pollution-related health problems. Here are five of them:

1. Follow the PSI and Haze indicator from the National Environmental Agency

It can actually be quite hard to tell what the level of air pollution is like in Singapore, and if you have a family member who is sensitive to the air quality, it would be a good idea to monitor the air quality outside. Singapore has a website run by the National Environmental Agency that measures and displays the current PSI – or level of air pollution. The website also has guidelines recommending activities and explaining how to read the levels- a big help to ensure you don’t put yourself or your family at risk.

Of course, these ratings may be a little under-stated. It would be a good idea to also look at the NO-BS PSI website (warning – some strong language on the site la) which gives you the actual PSI, not the three hour average. Having watched this site over the past few days, it’s been shocking to see how different the actual vs 3-hour rate can be at times.

2. Invest in an air filter

In Singapore, and indeed in many other locations in Asia, at times the air quality indoors is often as bad, or even worse than it is outdoors. One of the best ways to ensure better air quality indoors is to invest in a strong air purifier or filter. Experts suggest that one with a HEPA filtration system and a layer of active carbon, which can remove up to 99.97% of harmful air pollutants. These can be found in most electronics stores around the city, and even online at stores like Lazada.

3. On days with bad pollution, consider wearing a mask

We always see pictures of people in China motoring around with masks on due to the air pollution, and while, thankfully, it’s not usually as bad here in Singapore, a mask could be a good idea on days when the pollution is high. Masks, especially those with filters, can remove a large percentage of harmful pollutants from the air you breathe, making it not only easier for you to breathe, but also possibly increasing your health as well.

4. Try to limit driving whenever possible

In Singapore, cars are a major contributor to the air pollution levels. While it will take a concerted effort to get everyone to drive less, you can help reduce pollution levels by not driving as much. Singapore’s public transit network is one of the best in the world, and with new measures coming into play that will further enhance efficiency; public transport is nearly always a viable option.

5. Consider health insurance

How does health insurance enter into reducing air pollution? Well, it doesn’t really, but the fact of the matter is that no matter how much you do to help reduce air pollution in Singapore, there is still a chance that you can get sick as a result of it. As an expat in Singapore there is a very high chance that you don’t have access to the nationalised medical scheme, which means you could be faced with costly medical bills.

Having a medical insurance plan in place for you and your family can offset potential costs of air pollution-related sickness, while also receiving the best treatment Singapore has to offer. Talk to Pacific Prime Singapore to see how they can help you to secure the best insurance plan on the market. Contact them today.

This  article was written by Pacific Prime, who offer professional advice and competitive quotes on international health insurance in Singapore.