Air Pollution Hits Record Levels in Singapore

On June 19, NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites captured striking images of the wildfires' smoke from space. (Image credit: NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response)

Wildfires burning on the Indonesian island of Sumatra have sent a choking haze over Singapore, pushing air pollution to record levels.

At 12:00 p.m. local time (04:00 GMT) Friday (June 21), the Pollution Standards Index — a scale of 0 to 500 to measure air pollution — hit 401 in Singapore, the highest in the country's history. Before this week, the record had been 226, set in 1997. By 10:00 p.m. Friday, the pollution index had dropped to 153, which is still considered in the unhealthy range of air quality.

The impenetrable smog enshrouding the city could be life-threatening; officials have closed schools and urged residents to wear protective face masks or stay indoors, especially elderly, pregnant women, children and people with chronic medical conditions.

"For the next few days the current dry weather and wind conditions are likely to continue. Hazy conditions are thus expected to persist," read the latest update from the country's National Environment Agency.

The wildfires behind the haze have been linked to illegal slash-and-burn land clearance in Indonesia. Environmental officials from both Singapore and Indonesia have been in emergency talks in Jakarta, but the smog situation seems to have created some diplomatic tension between the two nations.

"This is now the worst haze that Singapore has ever faced," Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's environment and water resources minister, said in a statement Wednesday. "And no country or corporation has the right to pollute the air at the expense of Singaporeans' health and well-being."

Indonesia's minister for people's welfare, Agung Laksono, hit back at Singapore for "behaving like a child" over the matter and even implied that foreign palm oil companies, even ones from Singapore, could be in partly to blame for the fires, the BBC reported.

Early Friday, Indonesian authorities dispatched two helicopters with cloud-seeding equipment to Riau province to try to trigger rainfall over the fires burning across the carbon-rich peatland, according to AFP.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.