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Monday, 6 April, 1998, 15:48 GMT 16:48 UK
Haze: Bad for the health
Masks are used to try to stop smoke particles getting into the lungs
Health fears have been raised by the threat of a reoccurrence of the smog which covered South East Asia in 1997. The threat will be felt most by the millions who, after last year, know what it is like to live engulfed by a smoky atmosphere.

There are fears of a repeat of last year's conditions
Through much of 1997, the hiss and crackle of burning vegetation could be heard across the huge forested islands of Borneo and Sumatra, in Indonesia. The fires created a dense blanket of smog, which took a terrible toll on human health across South East Asia. The haze covered Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the southern Philippines, blotting out the tropical sun and leaving millions of people gasping for breath.

Noel Murrin, from Singapore's Environmental Centre, explains the effects of inhaling the smoky air: "The particles and the chemicals that are on the surface of the particles lodge in the lungs deep down. Many of these particles are of the size that get right into the lungs and they tend to accumulate. It is not like you can cough them out."

The smog may make car pollution worse
There are also fears that the smoke may exacerbate the adverse effects to health of pollution from car fumes.

The Director of Malaysia's National Poison Centre, Professor Dzulkifli Razak, said haze gives particular concerns about carbon monoxide levels in the atmosphere: "With the kind of emissions that have been produced by vehicles and so on, we don't know whether these levels are exaggerated because of the haze."

He says the fires create other gases as well, which last year led to the hospitalisation of large numbers of people who were suffering from relatively minor respiratory problems, such as asthma and other ailments of that kind.

Huge numbers affected

The smog was hard to escape
The smog of 1997 affected so many people throughout the region that many hospitals struggled to cope, particularly in the worst hit areas. In the Sumatran city of Jambi, one of the places where the smog was thickest, none of the inhabitants were able to escape the dense smog and the main clinic overflowed with people waiting for medical treatment.

Inevitably, it was the elderly and the very young who suffered most. Mothers desperately sought treatment for their coughing babies but the doctors could do little against a haze that penetrated the corners of every home in the area.

In Malaysia over 15,000 people, mostly children, were treated for smog related illnesses. Masks were issued to the population of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, as the smoke reached dangerous levels, and many parents tried to keep their children at home.

One father, Ismail Ibrahim, said at the time: "I try to keep them indoors as much as I can, but kids being kids they go out, so we ask them to use masks whenever they can. But visibility is a problem when they play outside; cars can't see them that well, so they stay a lot indoors now.

There were also warnings in Singapore for people, particularly the sick and elderly, to stay indoors.

After the fires died down, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to cooperate on health research into the after-effects of the haze. That will be of little consolation for those who fear a repeat of last year.

See also:

16 Feb 98 | Asia-Pacific
20 Feb 98 | Asia-Pacific
26 Feb 98 | Asia-Pacific
06 Apr 98 | Analysis
06 Apr 98 | Analysis
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