Sadly, it’s not purple haze as the song goes – more like a grayish brown. In any case the 2013 Southeast Asian Haze is having a serious negative effect on air quality in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. In Singapore, the haze has even settled down to the underground subway (MRT) stations. Air pollution is generally measured on the PM2.5 scale; in other words, floating fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less, which can be trapped in the lungs and causing respiratory harm. Singapore’s PM2.5 rating has topped 400, which is the equivalent of a very smoggy day in Beijing.
Rather than hand-wringing, it’s advisable to take action in preventing health problems from poor air quality. And because we can’t invent the world’s biggest fan to blow all the smoke away, let’s have a lighthearted analysis of some of the items which people can use to weather the infamous 2013 Southeast Asian Haze.
Au naturale – 1 out of 5 stars (depending on your grooming habits)
When the air is this bad, it’s best to just remain inside with the windows closed and hope that you’ve recently changed the filters on your air conditioner. Anyway, your body has a few natural defenses against inhaling soggy, sooty air and protecting the sensitive alveoli in your lungs. Believe it or not, the first line of defense is those pesky unsightly hairs in your nostrils! These hairs are well designed to protect your lungs from particulate matter, as well as to keep the air you inhale moist. Yet another reason why it’s an insult to be called a “mouth breather”! In fact, physicians advise exercising restraint when trimming the hair in your nostrils, in order to maintain the body’s nasal defenses against particulate matter.
Similarly, the mucus naturally produced in your nose serves as a sort of flypaper for particulate matter before the bad stuff has a chance to get into your lungs. There’s more – cilia the fine protuberances in the mucus membrane will carry particulate matter through to the stomach, where it can be safely excreted. Finally, on a cellular level, there is one final natural defense provided to you by your body – the macrophages in the lungs, which may eliminate particles that have managed to pass the previous three barriers.
Wet rag or surgical mask – 2 out of 5 stars
While there is much to be said for letting the body’s natural defenses handle invading matter, this Singapore haze exceeds what the human body was designed to handle. If you must go outside without any sort of respirator mask, you may utilize a wet rag as a temporary solution. Really! Just take a damp rag and cover your mouth and nose with it, then tie it off behind your head, like a railroad-robbing bandit from an Old Western movie. The rag will trap some of the largest particulate matter, but bear in mind that this is a very temporary solution, as soon the rag will be covered in soot and very close to your mouth and nose!
A step above the wet rag in both function and fashion, a surgical mask can give off the appearance of a confident medical man or woman. However, there is one serious design flaw here. The surgical mask is actually designed to keep exhaled germs away from an open wound; it is much less effective in preventing ambient particles from entering your mouth and nose. There are also some concerns about the efficacy of the surgical mask in general, as it tends to trap warm moist air near the mouth and nose, and can quickly become a vector for pathogens. To go beyond your typical paper surgical mask that you find at any medical supply store, look into cotton masks, such as Vogmask brand masks, or the highly rated N95 disposable masks that are effective in protecting people from the flu.
Air Purifying Respirator – 3 out of 5 stars
These half-face covering masks are designed to filter particulates from the air that the user breathes. Just be sure to change the filters as needed. Reputable companies like 3M make many different styles of these masks for different budgets and companies can be found online that specialize and making respirators with cool designs that may make wearing one in public a bit more enjoyable/acceptable. With one of these babies, you’ll be the envy of every surgical mask wearer you pass by!
Gas Mask – 4 out of 5 stars
For the very latest in post-apocalyptic chic, go with a gas mask. This is a bit of kit that is purpose-built to protect you from fine particulate matter (and the occasional canister of World War I-era mustard gas.) By covering your whole head, not only your mouth and nose will be protected from the haze, but also your other facial orifices too. There are several different options for filters on a gas mask. Filters designed to protect against particulate matter are designated P1, P2, and P3. P3 are the most effective, and are designed to trap at least 99.5 percent of airborne particulate matter. Breathing may be a bit more laborious and your face is going to get hot and sweaty, but your lungs will be thanking you.
Scuba Gear – 5 out of 5 stars
Southeast Asia boasts some of the world’s best scuba diving. What better time to take advantage of a chance to breathe air out of a can?! You may already know that the word “scuba” is actually an acronym for “self contained underwater breathing apparatus,” but there is also “SCBA”, which is a self contained breathing apparatus that is used by firefighters and miners in dangerous low-oxygen environments with little to no sea turtles. Unfortunately, these are a short term solution, and the gear is rather unwieldy and requires a bit of training to use.
Hazmat Suit – 6 out of 5
Of course, the Southeast Asian haze is not just an irritant to the respiratory system. Particulate matter can affect the eyes and other mucous membranes, and also can penetrate the body through the epidermis (that’s skin to the layman). So to be extra careful, don a hazmat (HAZardous MATerials) suit, with an SCBA system built in for total protection.
Hazmat suits are classified on a scale of A – D. Level A is the highest level of protection: particulate matter doesn’t stand a chance (nor do vapors, mists, or chemicals). Level A protection includes steel toed boots and specialized chemical resistant gloves, as well as a built in radio system, so you can warn others about all the poor air quality in your vicinity. However, these suits can cost S$1,200 or more, so they may not fit every budget.
This fun article was written by Pacific Prime, who offers professional advice and competitive quotes on international health insurance in Singapore.