The country of Malaysia is found in southeast Asia, made up of thirteen states and three federal territories. These are separated by the south china sea into two separate sections, with peninsular Malaysia being the region that it typically associated with the countries name, hosting the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. The other region is located in Borneo, being known as the eastern portion of Malaysia respectively. There are some noticeable discrepancies in the levels of pollution between the two regions. In 2019 Malaysia came in ranked 50th place amongst all the countries of the world, with a PM2.5 rating of 19.36 µg/m³, putting its yearly average into the ‘moderately’ polluted range.
In order for a city or country to be classified as moderately polluted requires a PM2.5 reading anywhere between 12.1 to 35.4 µg/m³, putting Malaysia somewhat at the lower end of this moderate spectrum, however as it can be observed, there are months throughout the year that experience rapid spikes in pollution, and as such it is of importance to take this into account, both in regards to the yearly average rating as well as the causes and appropriate measures that may be taken against it. In terms of how polluted it is in comparison to other countries in south east Asia, it can be seen that Malaysia actually came in with a significantly better placing than many of its ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) neighbors, coming in with a better position ahead of countries such as Thailand, which presented with a ranking of 28th place in 2019, Vietnam (15th place) and Indonesia (6th place). This goes to show that whilst Malaysia has a plethora of pollution and haze related issues that it has to deal with year in year out, its neighbors give some perspective of the improvements that it has made over the last few decades of industrial growth, and despite facing many obstacles in its path towards cleaner air, pollution levels could eventually be reduced quite significantly.
Some of these aforementioned obstacles include an over reliance on vehicles, a lack of highly efficient public transport systems as compared to other countries (although this is changing rapidly with large amounts of investment going into public transport initiatives and projects) as well as comparatively lax rules regarding types of fuels used as well as heavy fuel subsidies, causing a number of pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) to enter into the atmosphere, causing worse US AQI readings as well as an increased level of PM2.5 found in the air, coming heavily from the automobile sector.
PM2.5 refers to fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less, with highly detrimental effects displayed in those who breathe it over long periods of time. With its 50th place ranking worldwide out of 98 countries ranked, it stands as a country that suffers from periods of extremely poor air quality where these PM2.5 levels will climb quickly to dangerous levels, however throughout the rest of the year when Malaysia is absent from these pollution spikes (which when considered, are sometimes out of its control due to transborder smoke issues) the air quality sits at the lower end of the moderate rating, with some cities finding themselves in the ‘good’ rated bracket throughout the majority of the year, and others finding themselves sitting within the World Health Organization’s target reading of 0 to 10 µg/m³ during a majority of the months of the year, as recorded in 2019.
When observing some of the cities displayed on the IQAir website, such as the top seven most polluted cities in Malaysia as of 2019, it is evident that the levels of pollution in these cities could be somewhat of a concern, and be bringing down the countries yearly average ranking. These top seven cities, which include ones such as Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Shah Alam and Petaling Jaya to name a few, sat at moderate ratings all year round, with rapid climbs observed in August, followed by a dangerous spike in pollution in the month of September, sometimes spilling over into October but gradually receding afterwards. For cities such as these, especially during the latter part of the year, it is apparent that they suffer from a poorer quality of air, and would be of significant concern for those living there year-round, with preventative measures being of greater importance.
With its multiple sources of pollution, there would be a large number of different chemicals, compounds and particulate matter making up the pollution collective that finds itself in the Malaysian air. The main offending pollutants, which would be found in similar quantities in other countries around south east Asia, would be ones such as the previously mentioned nitrogen dioxide, which finds itself being emitted mostly by cars, trucks, buses and other forms of transport. The levels of NO2 found in the air are often a good indicator of how much pollution is coming from vehicles alone, as it is the primary pollutant emitted from cars and other engines. They are so well correlated that in fact areas that have high concentrations of traffic or see large volumes of cars passing through them, incidentally have high levels of NO2 present in the atmosphere surrounding it.
Other primary and secondary pollutants would include sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), with carbon monoxide finding a majority of its emissions from any fuel burning appliance, unfortunately, and often fatally in many cases, located indoors in people’s homes. These sources would include appliances (often malfunctioning or improperly cared for ones) such as furnaces, water heaters, as well as generators and any variety of wood burning stoves. Carbon monoxide is formed from the improper combustion of carbon, often in environments such as contained or sealed spaces that lack oxygen. As such, when the carbon undergoes combustion, it lacks the normal abundance of oxygen molecules in the air to bind with and form the less deadly and more inert carbon dioxide (CO2), instead forming carbon monoxide, which in turn contributes more to air pollution, being one of the previously mentioned ‘secondary pollutant’.
A secondary pollutant is one that is not emitted directly from a single source, but is instead formed from the reaction between separate chemicals, hence why it is known as a secondary pollutant. As such, primary pollutants are ones that are released directly from their source, including pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), lead, mercury and other forms of particulate matter. It is important to note that some pollutants can be both primary and secondary at the same time, with examples being nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Both can be released directly from a polluting source such as a vehicle, or be formed via chemical reaction later on in the atmosphere.
Moving on to the other causes of poor air quality in Malaysia, it is apparent that whilst vehicular emission makes up the majority of pollution found across most of its cities, there are other salient sources as well, which would include ones such as factories and other industrial production areas, construction sites which can release high amounts of finely ground dirt onto the roads and into the air, sometimes containing heavy metals and other tiny particles with detrimental health effects. When a construction site is poorly maintained, the dust and fine particles produced as a natural byproduct can make their way onto nearby roads. This in turn can combine with exhaust fumes, often combining with materials such as black carbon (the primary component of soot and highly damaging to both human health and the atmosphere). Once these fine particles combine in the form of road dust, high volumes of traffic can pass over them and send them billowing up into the atmosphere, further adding to the levels on PM2.5 found in the air and subsequently adding to the list of health effects that can be caused by the inhalation of such substances.
Lastly and most importantly, are the huge clouds of haze and smog that come from open burning sources. These can occur locally, with forest areas and large amounts of organic refuse being burnt out in the countryside and rural areas of Malaysia, but the most obvious source being the infamous forest and farmland fires coming from Indonesia, mainly Sumatra, whereby farmers practice the highly illegal slash and burning farming methods, setting fire to crop stubble and large areas of forest or plant land. Whilst this is a quick and effective way of clearing land for farming as well as returning nutrients to the soil, it also has the highly disastrous effect of causing vast amounts of smoke to make their way over to Malaysia, which out of all the countries in the region is hit the most hard by it, due to winds and geographical location, although Singapore can oftentimes suffer the same detrimental effects.
Many famous years on records have logged the disastrous effects of these clouds of smoke drifting over to Malaysia, with too many on record to go into detail. Symptoms of these smoke clouds can include heavy smog and haze, reduced visibility in major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, the closure of schools as well as interruption of travel, both local and international. Most important to note is the large number of premature deaths attributed to these haze clouds, with children, elderly and those with a predisposition to respiratory ailments being most vulnerable.
Health issues and the risks associated with higher levels of PM2.5 and PM10 in the air are numerous, including a myriad of problems, often primarily affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. When the pollution reaches its highest levels in the air, a number of short-term problems can present themselves. These include symptoms such as increased chance of lung and throat infections, as well as irritation to the skin, eyes and nasal passages. PM10 can cause asthma sufferers to have higher numbers of acute attacks, as well as causing it to develop in individuals who may not have suffered from it before.
Vulnerable sections of the population including young children who grow up exposed to these pollutants and thus breathe them in over prolonged periods of time, can develop a decrease in their overall lung capacity, which can in turn stunt growth and cause developmental issues. Pregnant mothers can also experience birth defects in their children if overexposed, due to the ability of the smaller sized PM2.5 to enter the bloodstream via the lungs and circulate to the rest of the body. Once it has entered the bloodstream, instances of cancer can increase, due to the fine particulate matters ability to permeate deep into the lung tissue and stay there. Along with the increased risk of cancer there is also chances for individuals to develop heart diseases and arrythmias, along with a heightened risk of heart attacks, particularly amongst the elderly or those with preexisting cardiac conditions. Due to the large amount of health problems associated with breathing in elevated levels of pollution, it would be of interest to many people living in Malaysia to take preventative measures in regards to reducing their exposure to the smoke and haze that can fill the skies. These measures may include the wearing of particle filtering masks during particularly bad spells, as well as referring to air quality maps that show daily and hourly updates of the air quality index (AQI), or air pollution index (API) as it is known locally in Malaysia. Such maps are available to view on the IQAir website, as well as on the AirVisual app that delivers up to date reports on pollution levels direct to people’s phones.
When observing the data taken over 2019 in regards to the levels of PM2.5 present in the air, it is seen that in September there is countrywide spikes in pollution that often jump up into the ‘unhealthy’ category, one which requires a fairly substantial PM2.5 reading of anywhere between 55.5 to 150.4 µg/m³ to be classed as such. Five cities are observed as having taken the leap into the unhealthy category, with 17 cities moving up from a moderate rating into the ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ category. Whilst September is most definitely top of the list in terms of most polluted months, as mentioned before the pollution jump can sometimes begin in august and often times spill over into October, and as such heightened levels of caution should be taken during those three months.
As of 2019 the most polluted city in Malaysia caught on record was Putrajaya, coming in with a PM2.5 reading of 22.4 µg/m³. Whilst this city narrowly beat out Kuala Lumpur, which came in with a reading of 21.6 µg/m³, there were several months of data missing from the readings, as such the results may be skewed somewhat and Kuala Lumpur may unofficially take the top spot, with the haze and pollution spike in Kuala Lumpur being far more prominent than that of Putrajaya’s. However, with its extremely close proximity to Kuala Lumpur, it stands to reason that Putrajaya will have very similar levels of pollution, with the effects of high-level vehicle usage as well as the industrial sector playing a large part in the levels of ambient pollution that the city sees round the course of the year. But as it stands with the average taken from yearly readings of PM2.5, Putrajaya still takes the top spot of most polluted cities recorded in Malaysia as of 2019.