This is a post for my readers outside of Singapore. Why? Because my readers in Singapore are living this experience. What experience, you may ask? This one:
These photos are courtesy of KMN, taken out the window of his office (thus the glare on the left; sorry!). The 2012 photo was taken at sunset; the 2013 photo was taken in the middle of the afternoon. They are in approximately the same direction – the long Prudential building in the lower right of the 2012 picture is in the lower left of the 2013 photo.
On the day that the right hand photo was taken (Monday, June 17th), we got our first lesson in pollution relativity. The “high” haze levels from the weekend were nothing compared to what happened on Monday. Air pollution in Singapore is monitored in several ways. PSI (Pollutant Standards Index) is probably the most common metric, and is a measurement of the amount of airborne particulate matter smaller than 10 microns (some folks prefer a similar measure, called PM2.5, for particulates smaller than 2.5 microns). PSI was actually developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency. They rank PSI levels as follows:
201-300: Very Unhealthy
Most of the year, Singapore is somewhere around 20-40. About a week ago, numbers started inching toward 100. During the course of this week, we have seen numbers surpass 200, then 300, and just today (Friday), 400. This is the worst haze that Singapore has ever experienced. You can find more information on PSI, as well as hourly levels (as an average of the previous three hours) on the Air Pollution page of Singapore’s National Environmental Agency.
What is the origin of this air pollution/haze? Great question! The short version is this: Just like everything else in Singapore, it’s imported. Farmers in Indonesia clear their land using slash & burn methods, and:
Burning + Unlucky Wind Direction + Dry Season = Singapore Haze
This happens every summer (although this is one thing about moving to Singapore that no one *ahem*KMN*ahem* warned me about), to varying degrees. The last two really bad seasons occurred in 1997 and 2006, although this year’s levels have exceeded all previous recorded levels.
Mostly, this land is being cleared to plant oil palms, which are used for making…yes, you guessed it palm oil. Palm oil is used in cooking, in packaged foods (go check the ingredient list on your ice cream), in HBA items, and as a biofuel. I don’t want to turn this post into a diatribe about palm oil, but the bottom line is that although oil palms produce a LOT of oil per acre (more than many other kinds of plants), many of the production practices are environmentally and socially irresponsible. Slash and burn clearing is just one of them. If you want to learn more, you can start with this Wikipedia primer on the controversy surrounding palm oil production.
Of course, there is plenty of finger-pointing going on over who is responsible for this practice and the resultant haze (and of course, suddenly, this is a Very Important Issue): People blame companies, companies blame contractors, contractors blame sub-contractors, and sub-contractors don’t have enough money (read: aren’t paid enough money) to buy the equipment necessary to clear the land without using fires. There are both international and domestic political issues at play here. But to be honest, neither detailing nor dissecting them is critical to this post, and I’m not sure that I’m properly qualified to do so fairly and accurately anyway.
Currently, there is no immediate end in sight. PSI levels do vary over the course of each day; early mornings tend to be the lowest, with levels rising into the afternoon, and peaking in the mid-afternoon to evening. But as the week has gone on, the daily highs have just gone up. Let’s go back to KMN’s office for a moment:
The picture on the right corresponds to the highest PSI levels of the day (>400 at mid-day on Friday). Things may get better in a few days, although the “hazy” season is typically measured in weeks-to-months, not days.
On a practical level, the whole island smells like burning, and not exactly in a lovely campfire way. The smell is starting to permeate buildings; it’s getting into lobbies and elevators, and KMN reported that even his 40-something floor smelled like burning today. Obviously, people are being urged to stay in the air conditioning, to keep windows closed, and to take personal protective measures.
We are fortunate; each room in our house has air conditioning. While we normally only use the air conditioning in the bedroom overnight, we’ve had it on intermittently in other rooms over the past week. Obviously, all of our windows are closed and shades are drawn. We even shoved a towel at the base of our door. [All those winters in NJ and Rochester certainly taught me the most common spots for air to sneak into a building!]
Personally, we are sporting some N95 masks (rated to keep out many of these particulates, more so than a regular surgical mask) when we go out, and I’ve been wearing my sunglasses during the day. It’s a very subtle look:
What are the short term consequences of being out in the haze? That’s easy: Scratchy throat, itchy eyes, irritated nose. What are the long term consequences? I have no idea. I don’t think anyone really knows. How “hazardous” is “hazardous”? Honestly, I don’t think anyone really knows that, either. How much exposure is “long term”? How clean is my air conditioned air? Do I need an air purifier? Can I work out at the gym safely? How safe is “safe”? Well gosh, there’s a heck of a lot that we really don’t know.
I should note that, while this is an inconvenience for us, it is quite serious for others, particularly those with high levels of exposure: construction workers, those without air conditioning, and anyone who works outdoors. Some grassroots campaigns have sprung up around the island, in an attempt to distribute supplies to those who may need them the most (and be least able to get them). Here’s a short video documenting one man’s efforts:
KMN and I are doing our best to live a generally normally life with some precautions. We are not in the most ‘susceptible’ populations – we aren’t very young or very old, and we don’t have any chronic respiratory conditions. We’re using masks and staying indoors whenever possible. However, we aren’t on house arrest: KMN is going in to work (although his firm is permitting telecommuting if possible), I just went out shopping for a bridesmaids dress (wedding is in 8 days, nothing like waiting until the last minute, right?), we’re working out at the gym, and we went out for dinner tonight.
And this brings me to my final point. On Thursday, I tried this:
Why? Because I have 18 miles on tap for tomorrow morning, and there’s no way in heck that I’m doing them outside. Eighteen miles is six miles longer than my previous treadmill PR, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a smidge scared. On the plus side, I won’t choke to death, the air will be cooler, there is a drink bar mere steps from the treadmill, and have I mentioned The Closer? I’m also a little excited…I know I can cover 18 miles (I did it last week), so this will be a good chance to test my mental fortitude, and practice what I preach to clients: Do what ya gotta do, just get your workout done!
Still, 18 miles is kind of a lot: Four episodes of The Closer, to be exact. I’m pumping myself up for it at this very moment (and having my pre-long-run bedtime glass of Nuun). I’ll be hopping on the ‘mill in about 8 hours, so today’s Comment Prompt will be very selfish:
Tell me a funny treadmill story!
Send some encouragement!
Describe a haze-free outdoor adventure you’ll be having this weekend!
[I pinky swear that I won’t read any Comments until I’m at least 6 miles into tomorrow’s run.]