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  Yahoo News 2 Nov 06
Indonesia says forest fires almost gone

Yahoo News 2 Nov 06
Many risk long-term damage from SE Asia haze: experts
By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) - From asthma attacks and sore throats to scarring and abnormal development of lungs in children, Southeast Asia's annual haze is a health menace that affects millions of people and costs regional economies dearly.

Apart from fuelling a surge in work absenteeism and medical costs, choking smoke from Indonesia's forest and peat bog fires since mid-Aug has scared off tourists and hurt airlines, hotels and shop owners in Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

This year's haze was among the worst in the past decade and health experts say the effects of repeated exposure grow over time, and can even stunt lung growth in children.

"At levels of pollution much lower than what we are talking about here, young people in the most formative stage of their development experience stunting of lung growth," Anthony Hedley, professor of community medicine at University of Hong Kong said.

"I think that is a very likely outcome of these repeated intermediate to long-term exposures of the populations in Indonesia, Malaysia (and Singapore)," he told Reuters.

The fires, lit deliberately by farmers and plantation owners on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and large parts of Borneo to clear land, emit particulates, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, all of which can injure the heart and lungs.

This year's haze brought air pollution indices to worryingly high levels and forced many to stay indoors.

In Singapore, the government has advised people to avoid strenuous activities outdoors and to stay inside air-conditioned environments. Complaints of asthma and lung, throat and heart-related illnesses rose to nearly 15,000 in the first week of October, 600 more than in the same period a month earlier.

The region has not seen such a prolonged period of high pollution since the haze of 1997-98, and fires are still burning in southern Sumatra and parts of Kalimantan, although the air in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur has cleared in the past week.

Street sweeper Mohammad Soleh in Palembang in south Sumatra complained: "I can only work for three hours instead of the normal six hours. Even if I have a new mask every day, it doesn't help. I have to cover my face with a shirt."

"Even that can only last for an hour. After than I have to take a rest to catch my breath and soak my face.

In parts of Kalimantan, where the haze remains thick, children went back to school on Wednesday wearing surgical masks after a long break to celebrate the end of Ramadan.


In 1997-98, the haze blanketed a vast area, including southern Thailand, and cost the region billions of dollars in medical costs and damage to the tourism industry.

The fires burned for months in part because of a severe drought caused by El Nino.

Every year since, the haze has returned in varying levels of severity, causing acute eye and skin irritations, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, coughing and wheezing.

Young children, the elderly and those with pre-existing heart and lung problems suffer most, experts said. Mazrura Sahani, environmental health expert at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, studied death records from 1996-2000 in Malaysia's heavily populated Klang Valley and found that deaths from respiratory problems rose by 1.1 percent for very tiny increases in air pollution of the sort produced by haze.

The smoke throws dangerously small particles into the atmosphere. Measuring less than 10 micrometers in diameter, or PM 10, more than 1,000 of these particulates can fit on a pin-head and can seep into lung tissue.

"My study has shown that during the haze, the most prominent pollutants are the PM 10, which are also among the most dangerous because it goes into our lungs," she said.

Hedley said forest fires throw out "ultrafine" particles smaller than 0.1 of a micrometer that even masks cannot keep out.

David Hui, head of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, said particulates of less than 5 micrometers can penetrate deep into the lower respiratory tract. "It can cause inflammation in the lungs and small airways and result in scarring and prevent normal development of lung functions," Hui told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich from Kuala Lumpur, Crack Palinggi from Palembang and Mia Shanley from Singapore)

Yahoo News 2 Nov 06
Indonesia says forest fires almost gone

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia said on Thursday 90 percent of forest and brush fires that have produced thick smoke blanketing much of Southeast Asia have died out as regional officials met to discuss plans to tackle the annual hazard.

The smoke, known in the region as haze, has affected much of Southeast Asia for months, triggering fears of a repeat of the choking situation that hit the region in 1997-98.

Indonesia's neighbors have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires, most of which are deliberately lit by farmers or by timber and palm oil plantation companies -- some owned by Singaporeans and Malaysians -- to clear land for cultivation.

"It's OK now. Ninety percent of it is gone. I hope it stays like that," Environment Minister Rchmat Witoelar told reporters after opening a one-day regional workshop to develop an integrated action plan to fight the fires.

Recent rains have helped improve the situation, especially on Sumatra island where the haze disrupted flights in October.

The meeting in Jakarta discussed plans to set up an early warning system, build dams to block streams and rivers to divert water to underground peatlands and set up community-based firefighting brigades on Indonesia's Sumatra and Borneo islands, where most fires have raged.

Bambang Saharjo, a scientist at the Bogor Agricultural University who has served as an expert witness in forest fire investigations, said corruption was often to blame for failure to bring firms responsible to justice.

However, he said law enforcement appeared much better this year and police in West Kalimantan province on Borneo had recently arrested the director of a local palm oil plantation company.

Related articles on Singapore: Haze
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