In Singapore, the air quality is generally good due to the strict pollution standards. Yet doctors still see many patients whose lives and health are directly affected by the global phenomenon of air pollution.

The common effects of air pollution include irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and upper respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia. "Poor air quality can also exacerbate underlying lung problems, such as bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or allergic rhinitis," says doctors from the Department of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth​ group. Some patients may even need to be hospitalised.

Fine air particles can accumulate in the lungs

We can divide pollutants into two types:

  1. gas pollutants (e.g. carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, etc.) and
  2. particles in the air

Broadly speaking, gas pollutants can be detrimental to our health as they take part in gas exchange during each breath we take. However, they are not retained in the body and are excreted.

Particles in the air are another story. While the bigger particles are filtered by the respiratory tract (which includes our nostrils, airways and lungs), the finer particles are deposited in our lungs and may build up over a prolonged period. Such prolonged exposure to pollution can lead to the onset of chronic lung diseases.

Dangerous haze

In Singapore, the most preoccupying source of air pollution is the haze attributable to forest fires in Indonesia. This typically happens around October, when farmers carry out their slash and burn method of cultivation.

The haze can be exacerbated depending on the prevailing wind direction which carries the smoke particles. Air pollution may then reach the moderate to unhealthy range.

During the smoke haze pollution of 1997, there was an immediate 30 per cent increase in outpatient attendance and increased accident and emergency attendance for haze-related conditions. Measurements showed that 94 per cent of haze particles were smaller than 2.5 microns in diametre, which is the size that bypasses our filtering system and gets deposited in our lung tissues.

Ways to protect yourself from air pollution

Should you want a face mask to protect yourself against the haze and air pollution, make sure you get one that can catch the smallest particles. Look for filters that contain an electro-static charge, which can trap fine dust and particles below 0.3 microns.

As for inside your home, using an air conditioner may help remove air pollutants. Why? Air conditioning makes the air drier, effectively removing many water-soluble pollutants.

Stand-alone HEPA air cleaners can also be considered. The best ones are those equipped with True HEPA filters, which can capture high proportions of very small particles.

Ref: U11