Penang is an island state off the coast of the northernmost part of Malaysia, not far from the border of Thailand. It covers an area of some 1048km2, with a population of 1.77 million as of 2018. Pollution levels in Penang came in with consistently moderate readings over the course of 2019, with moderate referring to a number-based classification of pollution levels, and not just a descriptive. In order for a city, state or country to be classed as moderate requires a PM2.5 (particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter) reading of anywhere between 12.1 to 35.4 µg/m³ to be classified as such, although it should be noted that the yearly averages of the various cities in Penang, such as Balik Pulau, were at the lower end of the moderate spectrum in regards to its yearly average.
Despite this, there are months of the year when pollution levels rise significantly, the reasons of which will be discussed later in greater detail. To quote some figures over 2019 to show examples of the elevated levels of pollution, in the month of September, Balik pulau came in with a reading of 34 µg/m³, putting it at the absolute highest end of the moderate rating, with only 1.5 µg/m³ of PM2.5 required to push it up into the next bracket of ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’, which requires a reading of 35.5 to 55.4 µg/m³ to be classified as such. This shows that whilst the yearly average is not overwhelmingly bad, there are months when the air pollution levels can rise significantly (with the month of September being over double of Balik pulau’s yearly average reading of 16.1 µg/m³, which incidentally made it the most polluted city in Penang over 2019.
The other cities in Penang also came in with similar moderate ratings, all within several units of each other, not showing too much disparity between the four cities recorded over 2019, showing that the state of Penang seems to suffer from similar levels of pollution in an even manner. Whilst a moderate rating is not bad, for an island based coastal state, it could certainly stand to improve its numbers, with factors such as vehicle pollution and organic material burning causing worsened levels of air quality, with Balik pulau coming in at 21st place out of all the most polluted cities in Malaysia, out of a total 60 recorded.
As with the whole of peninsular Malaysia, the state of Penang has the same pollution issues to deal with year round, with ambient levels of pollution being affected by normal human activities such as car and other vehicle use (with a multitude of trucks, bikes, cars and boats all running on diesel fuels, which are far more polluting than cleaner fuel alternatives) as well as industrial based pollution, which will be looked into.
The elephant in the room regarding air pollution in Penang is the forest and farm fires in Indonesia and Sumatra, with their smoke and haze drifting northeastwards directly over Malaysia, where the smog can permeate the sky and cause PM2.5 levels to skyrocket over the month of September (other months are also at risk but It is apparent that numbers recorded during September consistently come in higher than others). Despite being highly illegal, with local and international pressure being implemented to try and put an end to this practice, slash and burn farming continues to be conducted unabated, with lack of local enforcement often allowing it continue.
This is often due the difficulty of enforcing it, due to the high volume of farms and forest areas in Sumatra and Indonesia, often times with the burning taking place in rural areas for out of the reach of the jurisdiction of a bigger city.
Besides the pollution problems caused by fires in Indonesia (as well as some locally produced ones) being the main cause of pollution, there would also be numerous pollutants released by the aforementioned cars and factories. The pollutive matter that can be found permeating the atmosphere in the form of smog and haze (when coming from forest fires) often contains noxious compounds such as carbon monoxide (CO), black carbon and volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), both of which are formed via the improper combustion of organic materials and fossil fuels, and as such would find their sources in both the factory industry as well as the forest fires.
To touch again on the industrial sector, it can be observed that there are a large number of factories on both the island side of Penang as well as the mainland side (with the state of Penang extending to both the island and cities found on mainland Malaysia). Amongst this industrial sector include factories that deal in rubber production, electronic parts, food production and packaging as well as chemical plants and an assortment of industrial product-based factories.
These would all primarily rely on fossil fuels for their energy, in particular coal. The combustion of this material can lead to further production of black carbon and all the other chemical compounds associated with the burning of a fossil fuel. Factories that deal in plastic based goods or packaging can often give off microplastics that can enter the atmosphere as well as the water and food chain, with the fumes given off by molten plastic releasing a myriad of chemicals such as mercury, furans, various forms of dioxins as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (BCP’s), all of which would not only contribute to Penang's ambient pollution levels year round but also have negative health effects of those living nearby or subject to breathing the air polluted by such fumes.
Before discussing the health issues associated with breathing Penang's air, it must be stated that whilst there are months of worsened air quality, with reports of state wide haze and smoke permeating the atmosphere combined with year round moderate ratings (which should be ideally better in an island based state due to coastal winds and other factors such as elevation and vegetation playing a role in pollution reduction), the overall air quality is not particularly terrible and as such these health risks are mainly associated with some of the more polluted months of the year.
To name a few of the ill health effects, ailments regarding the lungs and heart often find themselves topping the list, with issues such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) afflicting people who are exposed to pollution levels over longer periods of time (particularly during the worse months when the haze makes its way over). Within the umbrella term of COPD comes other conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, all of which can be worsened from breathing polluted air, or actually caused in those with no preexisting conditions if they are exposed over long enough periods of time.
Sensitive demographics such as young children may also find themselves at risk. The black carbon and volatile organic compounds can cause issues related to growth development, with children who suffer from overexposure to pollution often having cases of respiratory diseases that can permanently reduce lung function and therefore stunt growth. Beyond the physical, there are cognitive defects that can occur from polluted air, as well as an increased risk in cancers, particularly of the lungs.
Due to the insidiously small size of PM2.5, it has the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs tissue upon inhalation, where it can accumulate and cause risks of infection as well as general irritation to the respiratory tract, or in worst cases enter the bloodstream via the lungs and travel to the rest of the body, causing damage to the circulatory system and blood vessels, as well as travelling to the heart and causing heightened instances of cardiac arrest, as well as other forms of heart disease.
Larger particulate matter such as PM10, also found in the haze and ambient year-round pollution, can cause irritation to the skin, as well as the nose eyes and mouth. Due to its larger size, the negative health aspects are somewhat lessened, although it can still cause its fair share of damage and trigger off preexisting conditions such as aggravated asthma. These are to name but a few of the issues that one may encounter during months of higher levels of pollution, and as such preventative measures should be of primary concern to those that are at risk of overexposure.
Whilst it is hard to control the transborder smoke that drifts across from its neighbor, initiatives are being taken such as encouraging the general public to not engage in open burning practices of any sort, as this can contribute to local levels of pollution and compound the situation even further. When the haze has gotten to its worst, schools have been forced to close in order to protect the younger students.
It seems that preventative measures are of primary method of dealing with pollution, with a larger number of particle filtering masks being made available to the general public as well as health messages being broadcast statewide in an effort to get people to avoid outdoor sport activities during months of higher pollution. Besides the preventative measures, as with all cities and states across Asia, the continued removal of black smoke emitting vehicles continues to be implemented, and with their increased disappearance off of the roads, the air pollution levels should see a correlated drop due to their high smoke emissions.