PETALING JAYA: As fires rage across Sumatra and Kalimantan with no signs of improvement, the public has been warned to take health precautions, especially individuals suffering from asthma and other respiratory issues.

National Cancer Society Malaysia managing director Assoc Prof Dr M. Murallitharan said they can begin taking precautionary measures by staying informed through air quality index updates.

“Limit outdoor activities to reduce pollutant exposure on days when air quality is in the unhealthy range (air pollutant index above 101) and consult healthcare providers regularly.

“Individuals with lung complications such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should practise extra precautions by carrying at all times an emergency kit that includes masks, portable air purifiers and prescribed medications such as inhalers and bronchodilators.”

Murallitharan said air pollution could contribute to a worsening health crisis, especially in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Individuals exposed to air pollution, especially fine particulate matter and pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone, are more vulnerable to respiratory infections.

“To mitigate risks, it is crucial to continue practising public health measures to reduce Covid-19 transmissions while strengthening efforts to reduce air pollution and improve air quality.”

He urged the public to wear N95 masks during hazardous air quality conditions as they have a filtration efficiency of at least 95% for particles as small as 0.3 microns.

“N95s ensure that most inhaled air passes through its filter. However, wearing a mask is just one aspect of safeguarding yourself during the haze.”

Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia vice-president Randolph Jeremiah said the haze stems from fires in forested and agricultural areas, particularly those under peat.

The risk is expected to heighten during the El Nino phenomenon at the end of this year. Malaysia has some 2.6 million hectares under peat and fires are expected to occur primarily on drained peatlands.

“Early response is key to controlling and limiting their impact, which include increasing monitoring efforts and enforcement of illegal burning activities. In the long term, better peatland management is required by restoring the natural flow of water to avoid peat drying out.

“Transboundary haze from Sumatra and Kalimantan may become prevalent depending on wind conditions and is a health risk for the young, old and those with respiratory problems.”

Randolph said the government needs to hold local companies operating in Indonesia responsible for fire on their land. This includes tracing and reporting areas of their operations and amendment to laws with which irresponsible companies can be prosecuted locally.

“The public also needs to refrain from open burning, which can spread to forest and agriculture areas nearby. Better public awareness programmes can be conducted by the government to raise understanding among the public on fire reporting, which include the broadcast of hotline telephone numbers.”

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