Singapore gets some relief from haze of choking fumes

Story highlights

  • Pollution levels dip sharply in Singapore
  • Small pockets of people venture back out to the streets in some neighborhoods
  • Although haze levels have receded, officials warn that the smoke could make a strong comeback

Singapore breathed a sigh of relief Sunday as changing wind patterns created a pocket of clearer skies from a haze of choking fumes.

Pollution levels measured by the Singaporean government dipped sharply after all-time record levels hit Friday. The fumes were blamed on plantation fires in neighboring Indonesia.

Small pockets of people ventured back out to the streets in neighborhoods such as Ang Mo Kio, but many donned filter masks to help with the foul-smelling haze.

Masks quickly sold out at stores when the pollution hit last week. But by Sunday, officials handed out emergency supplies of free masks at community centers.

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Although haze levels have receded, officials warned that the smoke could make a strong comeback in the coming days, and may linger for months.

That could have serious health implications, said Philip Eng, a professor of respiratory medicine at Mt. Elizabeth Medical Centre.

"In my patients, I have seen an increase (in consultations) by about 30% or so," he said, particularly among older people with chronic conditions.

"But we are still in early days," he said. "If this thing drags on for a month, I won't be surprised if more people get hospitalized."

Many usually crowded cafes along the waterfront sat empty Saturday, with too few customers to stay open. But a scattering of tourists braved the haze to take photos at the city's iconic Merlion fountain.

The smell of the burning peat and wood was distinct.

"We're used to fog, but this was a real 'pea souper'," Briton expatriate Tom Fairburn said. "It smells like a pile of burning tires next to a bonfire, not pleasant."

It's hard to predict the final economic impact of the haze on Singapore's economy. One Asia-Pacific brokerage firm put the potential toll in the hundreds of millions.

CLSA said that the economy had taken a $300 million-hit in lost tourist income, closed offices and construction downtime in 1997 -- the previous all-time high in pollution. The current situation could be far more costly, it said.

Transport officials warned ships to be extra vigilant in the teeming straits between Singapore and Sumatra because the haze made it difficult to see other boats.

It is easy to see the neighboring island from the beaches in Singapore. But the view was not as clear in the past few days, with ships peeking in and out of the thick haze Saturday.

Local shop owners felt the crunch.

In one beach side shop, the owner looked forlornly into the horizon as bikes that would normally be rented out stood in stacks.