Air pollution from the annual agricultural fires in Indonesia has been affecting the health of hundred’s of thousands of people across the ASEAN region since September. The fires are now raging out of control and have been exacerbated by the effects of the El Nino weather phenomenon as a prolonged dry season in Indonesia has parched the top soil, fueling the flames.
Industry officials and analysts estimate that the smoke will last until early next year. “Maybe it will last until December and January,” said Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Centre for International Forestry Research headquartered in Bogor, Indonesia.
We hope the forest devastation will end soon, not only for the people of Indonesia and surrounding countries but also for the forests and wildlife. Until then here is some information to help you and your family during this devastating time.
- Nearly all countries have automated systems that measure air quality on a regular basis. It is recommended that in the morning and during the day you check the air quality index (AQI) readings in your area, by visiting AQICN. You can also install a widget on your smartphone home-screen to easily check information for your area.
- Use the below table to determine if the AQI measurement is healthy and suitable for outdoor activities (from the Living with Air Pollution infographic, and based on US EPA recommendations).
- Move any outdoor activities indoors when AQI readings are over 100. Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because based on body weight they breathe more air per pound than adults. In general children will also spend more time outdoors when pollutant rates are highest and tend to be more active when they are outdoors which increases breathing rates and therefore exposure to pollutants in the air.
- Talk to your child’s school administrators and ask to take a look at their documented air pollution contingency plans. There should be systems in place to alert teachers and others when smog or haze levels are high. Sports and other outdoor activities should be moved indoors or postponed when the AQI is over 100. Proactive schools may have air purifiers already installed in classrooms and other indoor areas where air pollution is an issue, just ensure they have a filter-replacement system and maintenance record to ensure the filters remain in good condition.
- Purchase a home air filter for your living areas and bedrooms. A good air filter will have a “True HEPA” filter that is certified to remove 99.97% of particles down to 0.3 microns. A True HEPA filter will always have its own certificate confirming it meets HEPA requirements. It must have a pre-filter and be correctly sized for the room it is used in, look for the clean air delivery rate (CADR) in the manufacturers instructions to ensure the filter is capable of filtering the size of room it is installed in.
- If you must go outside when the AQI is over 100 then wear a N95 mask for protection. For ease of use and comfort, make sure the mask has an exhalation valve and that it fits well (otherwise it won’t work as intended). Surgical masks will not remove particulate matter from the air and are essentially worthless in lowering air pollution health issues. Try to buy a mask by a certified manufacturer only so that you can be confident that it will work as advertised. The CDC has a list of recommended manufacturers. For information on fitting a N95 mask see here.
- Take extra care with family members who are asthmatics or have chronic lung disease or other pulmonary illnesses. They should be particularly careful about exposure to air pollution. Air pollutants are associated with increased acute respiratory illness and symptoms such as worsening of asthma and reduced lung function.
- Don’t let anyone smoke near you or your children. Smoking by either parent increases the risk of asthma. Tobacco and other kinds of smoking are examples of indoor air pollution. Keep your car and home smoke free to protect your kids. For further asthma information see item 19.
- Use an indoor gym for exercise when the AQI is over 100. Walking in shopping malls or indoor sports centers could be another option.
- Car pool or take public transportation when there is bad air pollution. Fewer cars will mean less air pollution. You’ll be helping the air and your lungs will thank you for it.
- Compost your yard waste instead of burning it; or chip it and use it for mulch. Outdoor burning is no longer allowed in many areas; but even if you live in an area where it is allowed, breathing smoke is bad for you, your family and your neighbours. Plus, you can use the compost or mulch in your garden.
- Be energy efficient. Most traditional sources of energy burn fossil fuels, causing air pollution. Turn off lights and appliances when not in use. Turn down the thermostat on your hot water heater and home heater to save energy.
- When purchasing electronic appliances look for the star energy rating system and buy the most energy efficient items to meet your needs.
- Keep your vehicle well maintained. A poorly maintained engine both creates more air pollution and uses more fuel. Replace oil and air filters regularly, and keep your tires properly inflated.
- Make sure air conditioners, heaters, refrigerators and any other energy using appliances are running efficiently by performing regular maintenance. Air conditioners & refrigerators are notorious for increasing power bills when they are not serviced regularly.
- For any large gaps between doors and floors put a “door sock” or damp towel against the door to prevent large amounts of polluted air entering your home.
- Plant trees! Trees absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and filter out air pollution.
- Asthmatics need to be especially careful during days with bad air pollution, the National Asthma Council Australia has some good guidelines for Asthmatics. See the following additional recommendations from Asthma UK:
- Always take your preventer inhaler as prescribed, even if you are feeling well.
- If pollution levels are high avoid strenuous exercise outside.
- The highest levels of pollution occur in sunny weather. When levels are high try to avoid visiting areas where there is a lot of traffic, particularly in the afternoon, when levels are at their highest
- Be Aware – don’t ignore asthma symptoms, if you notice them take action
- Know what to do if you have an asthma attack
- Keep your inhaler with you at all times
- The best way to deal with future sudden asthma flare-ups is to follow a written asthma action plan that you’ve filled in with your GP or asthma nurse.
- If you are pregnant, indoor air pollution can be particularly hazardous. Be aware of the following, as recommended by the US EPA:
- Exposure to paint fumes can be hazardous to the health of the mother and developing fetus – particularly VOC’s (Volatile Organic Comoounds). Pregnant women and children should avoid exposure to paint fumes and limit their time in freshly painted rooms.
- Creating a nursery can involve exposure to hazardous substances. Before using any product, always read the label first for instructions and safety information.
- Open the windows and doors fully in any room that is being painted or has recently been painted.
- Do not paint indoors with paint labeled “for exterior use only.”Ask a local paint dealer whether they carry low-VOC or zero-VOC paint. Due to environmental regulations and consumer demand, there are now several low-VOC and zero-VOC paints on the market. Currently, low- and zero-VOC paints as marketed may still emit VOCs of concern, and efforts should be taken to properly ventilate the room, and keep exposures to a minimum.
- For educational hands on activities to teach about air quality and climate change for schools see the American EPA resource page Science in Action.
Sign the Greenpeace petition to end haze and destruction here. From the Greenpeace website: “These fires are a man-made crisis, the result of decades of forest clearance and peatland drainage by plantation companies. The fires are also a symbol of the government’s failure to control the palm oil and pulp industries and to protect the natural environment.”
If you have any additions drop us a comment below. Thanks to Flicker user [email protected] for the great picture.
- AQICN – Global Air Quality Index Data
- CDC – Recommended list of Dust Mask Manufacturers
- National Asthma Council Australia – Asthma and Air Pollution
- The Safety Educator – Living with Air Pollution Infographic
- Asthma UK – Air Pollution Tips
- US EPA – Air Pollution and Pregnancy
- US EPA – Science in Action
- Natural Resources Defence Council – How to Protect Your Child Against Environmental Risks
- State of Washington – Department of Ecology
Maree has over five years of experience in Occupational Health and Safety and in the development of safety standards, training workshops and improvement initiatives. She is passionate about health, safety and education. Maree, a mother of two children, has a Advanced Diploma in OHS and will be graduating soon with a B.Sc. (HSE) from Australia.