August 13, 2005

Malaysia lifts emergency as haze abates

By Jalil Hamid

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia lifted a state of
emergency in two areas near the capital on Saturday after air
pollution levels fell well below the danger mark, easing the
country's worst pollution crisis in eight years.

Officials said changing winds have helped lift the smog
which has shrouded central Malaysia for a week, dispersing the
haze into the northern part of the country.

The sky over Kuala Lumpur was clear for the first time in
days and the weather bureau predicted weekend rains to further
wash away the haze that has threatened public health.

"We expect rains and thunderstorms this afternoon and in
the next few days in and around Kuala Lumpur," a weather
official told Reuters. "This will help clear the haze."

The National Security Council said pollution readings were
well below the 500-level mark which had triggered the emergency
on Thursday in Kuala Selangor and Port Klang, the country's
biggest port, following choking smoke from forest fires in

Air pollution readings improved further by midday on
Saturday, the Department of Environment said.

Only 12 places in the country registered a reading classed
in the category of "unhealthy" and most of them were in the
northern states of Penang and Perak, it said.

A reading of 101-200 on the Air Pollutant Index (API) is
classed as "unhealthy," 201-300 "very unhealthy" and 300 and
above "hazardous."

The latest reading put Kuala Lumpur at 103, Port Klang at
105 and Kuala Selangor at 117, it said.

Under the emergency, the government can order the closure
of state and private-sector offices, except for essential
services, such as clinics and hospitals. It can also limit the
use of private vehicles and ban open bonfires.

The haze moved toward northern Malaysia, but levels were
not as bad as they were earlier in the week.

Visibility near an airport in Penang, a major tourist spot
and a hub for electronics firms in Malaysia, dropped to 500
metres on Saturday from 2 km on Friday.

An aviation official said the airport would be shut if
visibility dropped to below 300 metres. Most of Penang's
electronics exports are shipped by air to buyers, mainly in the
United States, Japan and Taiwan.

In the past week, the haze has sent asthma attacks soaring,
forced hundreds of schools to close, grounded some flights and
disrupted shipping.

Malaysia's New Straits Times said on Saturday that as many
as seven people might have died from haze-related illness, such
as breathing difficulties.

But Malaysia's top health official Ismail Merican told the
paper that it was too early to blame the deaths on the haze.