PEAT FIRES CAN BURN FOR MONTHS and they produce haze and the small particles that we find in haze. Many of these particles are small enough to go deep into our lungs and stay there forever, others such as Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) are known to be carcinogenic.
ALEXANDER COBB→ The thing about peat fires is that they are very difficult to extinguish. In a peat fire, the soil is on fire. You can extinguish it above ground, but then, maybe as soon as the next day, it will pop up again, might be two days later. Might be a week later. And so these fires will just burn for months on end, and continue to produce smoke, continue to produce these small particles that we find in haze.
The other thing that can happen is that the peat can catch on fire. It's still oxidation of the peat, it just happens much, much faster. And again all of organic matter gets converted mostly back into carbon dioxide, although it might also make other things, like methane, and like small particles of what's left of the organic matter, and that's the stuff that we breath in that makes us sick, which comes from this smoke plumes from fires that burn forests and burn peat. They can come over to Singapore from Sumatra, from Kalimantan.
Some of the particles are very small and when they get into our lungs, it's very difficult for our body to expel them again. So it becomes an irritant on a very small scale. So we know that particles that are smaller than about 2.5 micrometers, this is very very small, when they get into our lungs, they tend to stay there. And the health risks of this are very well-known.
We also spoke to Mikinori Kuwata an atmospheric chemist who studies the changes of the chemical structure of peat haze particles as they travel through the atmosphere.
MIKINORI KUWATA→ The main component of haze particles is organic compounds. At least one previous laboratory experiment has demonstrated that peat burning particles emit a lot of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons which we call PAHs. PAHs are carcinogenic so that could be one important component we have to study if we think about health impact.
We find that a lot of chemical reactions happen during the transport of aerosol particles from Indonesia to Singapore. Aerosol particles emitted from peatland burning are very hydrophobic, that means aerosol particles emitted from peatland burning are oily. But a lot of chemical reactions happen in the atmosphere as these particles are transported to Singapore. During this atmospheric transport aerosol particles tend to be oxygenated and uptake water.
Pollution expert Erik Velasco explained a few facts about using different types of masks to protect populations from peat haze pollution.
ERIK VELASCO→ Well, this is the famous N95 mask. This mask was designed to filter small particles but in indoor environments, to retain bacteria and liquid aerosols in hospitals. This is an N99 mask. It has a better efficiency than the N95 mask. For a short period of time, yes, you can use it but remember it's not going to remove all toxic pollutants coming from the smoke haze. According to this brand this mask has an efficiency of 99%. The N95 has an efficiency of 95%.
Human beings were not designed to wear masks. After 3-4 hours, your body is going to ask you to remove that mask. You will feel exhausted, you may experience breathing problems. Well, this mask is good because it contains filters to remove particles, and contains an activated carbon filter to remove toxic gases. But as you can see it is not very practical to wear this mask.