From: Jasbant Singh, Associated Press
Published August 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Air Pollution Hits Emergency Level in Malaysian Port Town from Indonesian Forest Haze

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Air pollution exceeded emergency levels in two Malaysian towns Thursday as a smoky haze from forest fires in Indonesia shrouded Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs in a pall of noxious fumes in the country's worst environmental crisis since 1997.


Amid rising health concerns, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi telephoned Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and offered to dispatch fire fighters to help contain the fires, which have created the increasingly thickening haze since last week.


"The President responded positively to the offer," an aide to Abdullah told The Associated Press. He did not elaborate.


Authorities ordered schools closed as flights were canceled and people stayed indoors to escape the acrid, fog-like smoke that reached hazardous levels in many parts on Wednesday. Panicky Malaysians snapped up thousands of flimsy face masks, which offered little protection against the pollution.


The smoke is drifting from more than 300 forest fires in the Indonesian province of Sumatra, which lies just west of the Malaysian mainland, separated by the narrow Straits of Malacca.


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The air pollution index, which measures harmful particles in the air, surged above the 500-point level on Thursday morning in the districts of Port Klang and Kuala Selangor, the Environment Department said.


It is the first time that the 500-level, considered an emergency situation, has been breached in peninsular Malaysia.


A reading of above 300 is considered hazardous while the emergency level of 500 would require all nonessential government and private workplaces to be closed.


However, a spokeswoman for the National Security Division in the prime minister's department denied speculation that a formal state of emergency has been declared.


Four other areas, including Malaysia's biggest city Kuala Lumpur and administrative capital Putrajaya, had hazardous readings of above 300.


Malaysian and Indonesian officials are scheduled to meet in the north Sumatran capital of Medan later Thursday to discuss cooperation to contain the fires.


Malaysia had rushed a team of fire fighters during a similar crisis in 1997-98, which caused large parts of Malaysia and Singapore to be enveloped in haze. Total economic losses across the region were estimated at around US$9.3 billion (euro75 million).


The latest haze is Malaysia's worst environmental problem since the 1997 crisis, with officials reporting a sharp rise in complaints of eye and respiratory ailments caused by a thick concentration of pollutants in the air. Most people complained of red eyes, runny noses, wheezing coughs and sore throats.


Schools in and around Kuala Lumpur, the country's main city, have been closed Thursday and Friday, and people have been warned to stay indoors and to avoid outdoor activities.


Flights at the Subang airport near Kuala Lumpur, used primarily by charter and private aircraft, were suspended after visibility plunged to less than 400 meters (yards) on Wednesday, Wan Hasmi, an official with Malaysian Airports, told the AP.


Visibility at Kuala Lumpur International Airport ranged between 600 meters (yards) and 1 kilometer (a half mile), Malaysia Airports spokeswoman Shuhainie Shamsudin said. But no fight delays were recorded, she said.


In downtown Kuala Lumpur, where the smoke even filtered into air-conditioned offices, nothing could be seen beyond 500 meters (yards).


"Things are very bad here ... I am having breathing difficulties when I am outside," 31-year old Gerard Miranda told the AP. "The air is so bad that my eyes are stinging."


Travel agents kept a brave face, saying the haze would have minimal impact on tourism as key holiday destinations such as Langkawi and Penang in northern Malaysia were not affected by haze.


"So far we have not received any cancellations and it's peak tourist season right now," said Meloni Stevens, a tour agent dealing mostly with European tourists. "We are expecting that some people may postpone their trip ... instead of canceling outright."


The Meteorology Department said no respite was expected until October when rains would help wash away the haze, a cocktail of dust, ash, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.


Source: Associated Press


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