The API scale used in Malaysia ranges from zero to 500. The most important number on this scale is 100, as a API value in excess of 100 means that the onset of serious air pollution, and that the pollutants are in the unhealthy range.
The API scale is as follows:
0 to 50 - Good
51 to 100 - Moderate
101 to 200 - Unhealthy
201 to 300 - Very Unhealthy
301 to 500 - Hazardous
Since last Friday, the API for Kuching had overshot the highest band of the API, reaching at one time the shocking figure of 839 two days ago at 11 a.m.
Although the API for Kuching has fallen below 600 to 564 at 8 a.m., it is still above the topmost band of 500 mark in the API. If API level between 301-500 is categorised as "hazardous", what is the critical effect and description for a situation where the API level is between 501 to 600, 601 to 700, 701 to 800, and 801 and above? Can they be described as "disaster", "extreme disaster" and "full disaster" or is this already some "no man’s zone" which those responsible for formulating and monitoring the API are mentally incapable of grasping or accepting, explaining the failure of the API after one week to modify the API to cope with such extreme air pollution?
Until last week, the picture the people had been given by the government was that the country would be engulfed in a health-threatening air pollution crisis when the API exceeds the "unhealthy" limit of 300 and enters the "hazardous" band of 301 to 500, with the Mohamed Rahmat even announcing at one time that once the "hazardous" level is reached, a state of emergency would be declared.
However, the threshhold of "air pollution" endurance was quickly expanded in a very elastic fashion, to the extent that the drop of the API in Kuching to below 600 was regarded as a great relief – although it is still beyond the topmost band of the "hazaardous" API scale of 500.
It is reported today that the US embassy is evacuating family members of the diplomatic staff in Kuala Lumpur on a voluntary basis to escape the severe haze blanketting the capital.
The Canadian embassy is also sending its staff for a week’s leave in Australia on a rotation basis to give a fresh-air break from the haze.
Such news should be no surprise when the people of Sarawak have not been able to get a clear-cut answer from the Sarawak State Government why Sarawak Chief Minister, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud is not in the Sarawak state to provide leadership and guidance to the people during their worst crisis in the state’s history.
The Sarawak state government should account to the people why the Chief Minister had left Sarawak at the height of the haze emergency or whether he is setting the example to "evacuate" from the state.
The Kuching Airport was closed on Friday when a state of emergency was announced, and briefly re-opened on Sunday. Did Taib Mahmud leave Sarawak on Sunday taking advantage of this "window of opportunity" during the period when the Kuching Airport could fly aircrafts outside the state? Did he leave by ordinary MAS flight or by special charter flight?
Sarawakians are also still waiting for explanation from the Sarawak State Government about the whereabouts of the other Sarawak State Ministers and Assistant Ministers, especially as Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Dr George Chan denied on Tuesday "rumours that most of the State Cabinet Ministers have left for overseas to escape the haze."
He said some of the ministers were still stranded in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore because most of the air services by the Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines and other foreign airlines have been badly affected by the haze.
Malaysians in general and Sarawakians in particular want a full list of the state ministers and assistant ministers "stranded" outside Sarawak, explaining when and why they left Sarawak and why they could not return to Sarawak when the Sarawak Chief Minister could fly out of the state.
In my fax to Mohamed Rahmat, I made the suggestion that the National Disaster Management and Relief Committee should ensure that the DOE website should provide hourly update of the API to show the government’s seriousness in addressing the haze emergency by providing the people with the latest information. The DOE website for instance is only giving the API readings for noontime on Sept. 22, three days behind time – making a mockery of the seriousness and professionalism of the DOE and the government not only in handling the haze emergency, but also in shepherding the country into the digital society by making full use of the resources of Information Technology.
The public should also be given the details of the readings for the five pollutants which make up the API, namely carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter less than 10 microns (millionth of a metre) wide.
The API used in Malaysia is evidently modelled after the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the United States to provide accurate, timely, and easily understandable information about daily levels of air pollution. The index provides EPA with a uniform system of measuring pollution levels for the major air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act in the United States.
The EPA uses the Pollutant Standards Index to measure five major pollutants for which it has established National Ambient Air Quality Standards under the Clean Air Act. The pollutants are particulate matter (soot, dust, particles), sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established air quality standards protecting against health effects that can occur within short periods of time (a few hours or a day). For example, the standard for sulfur dioxide -- that is, the allowable concentration of this pollutant in a community's air -- is 0.14 parts per million exceed the national standard. For ozone, the hourly average concentration permitted under the standard is 0.12 parts per million.
The Malaysian authorities should similarly make public the detailed measurements as well as the adverse health effects of each of the five pollutants making up the API. Finally, I also suggested to Mohamed Rahmat that the authorities concerned should release a daily forecast of the API for the next 24 hours as is being done in other countries or whether Malaysia at present does not have expertise to provide daily API forecasts like daily weather forecasts.