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Air in Singapore, Malaysia Unhealthy as Sumatra Forests Burn

Smog caused by forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra enshrouded parts of Malaysia and Singapore, where air quality dropped to unhealthy levels.

The city-state’s Pollutant Standards Index indicated 140 in the three hours to 8 p.m. compared with 55 in the period to 9 a.m., the National Environment Agency said on its website. The last time the PSI went above 100 was on Oct. 21, 2010, when it hit 106, Channel NewsAsia reported.

Malaysia’s Terengganu, Pahang and Malacca registered readings above 100 on the country’s Air Pollutant Index at 11 a.m., according to the country’s Department of Environment. Levels of 101 to 200 in both nations signal the air is “unhealthy” to breathe.

The Malay Peninsula has been plagued for decades by forest fires in Sumatra to the west and Kalimantan on Borneo island to the east, according to S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The fires hit a peak in 1997, when haze cost the economies of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore an estimated $3.5 billion, based on figures published in a report by the Center for International Forestry Research.

The economic cost can be “significant” if the haze persists, particularly in the services sector, said Wai Ho Leong, a Singapore-based economist at Barclays Plc. “For Singapore, it could cast a pall on the Great Singapore Sale and divert would-be visitors to other parts of the world,” he said, referring to the annual period of retail discounts and tourist offers from May 31 through June 30.

Urgent Measures

Singapore has asked Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment to consider “urgent measures” to reduce the pollution, the NEA said. The city-state’s manpower ministry issued an advisory urging employers to minimize strenuous work outdoors.

“In situations where haze poses imminent danger to the safety and health of works and measures have not been taken to mitigate those risks, the Ministry of Manpower may order the affected work to stop,” Sim Li Chuan, a spokesman for the ministry, said in an e-mailed statement.

At least 138 hot spots were detected over Sumatra yesterday, with hazy conditions expected to persist for the next few days, the NEA said. The fires typically occur during a dry season for the region from June to September, it said.

Kemaman in Malaysia’s Terengganu recorded the highest reading of 121, according to the environment department’s 11 a.m. report. Bandaraya Melaka indicated 102.

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