Wednesday 26 June 2013

Ministries make plans to minimise disruption caused by haze conditions

Singaporeans may need to adjust daily routines, warns Ng Eng Hen
By Amelia Tan, The Straits Times, 25 Jun 2013

ALL Government ministries will announce action plans this week to help minimise any future disruption to Singaporeans caused by haze conditions.

The chairman of the haze inter-ministerial taskforce, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, told a press conference last night that Singaporeans' lives could be affected by problems ranging from public transport delays to longer queues at hawker centres, to workers slowing down as they work with masks on.

He said it was therefore important that people heeded the plans to be announced so that they can adjust their daily routines.

Dr Ng listed various scenarios that could occur if air conditions worsen.

Lower visibility would mean drivers have to slow down to avoid accidents. Changi Airport may have to slow down its operations or divert planes, while road and sea supplies from Malaysia could also be affected.

Garbage collection and construction of Housing Board flats may be delayed as outdoor workers are required to rest more.

Dr Ng said: "The key will be to adjust, slow down but don't stop, and we must protect our health, but in addition, prevent mass disruptions as far as possible."

He also called on unions and employers to support the Government in ensuring the haze action plans are rolled out smoothly.

Dr Ng said the taskforce decided to turn its attention to helping Singaporeans cope with the impact the haze has had on them, now that most retailers have been stocked up with N95 masks.

Many had run out of supplies before the Health Ministry pushed out another four million to people on lower incomes, vulnerable citizens and retailers.

Dr Ng was speaking to reporters after a visit to Changi Airport and an HDB development project in Punggol, where he met workers to find out how they were dealing with the haze.

He was accompanied by Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew.

Mr Tan called on employers to put the safety of their workers first, and assured firms that his ministry would help them get face masks if they had problems acquiring them.

Air-con subsidies for childcare centres
New fund also for kindergartens; elderly centres get fans, air-coolers
By Poon Chian Hui And Kash Cheong, The Straits Times, 26 Jun 2013

YOUNG children and elderly folk are getting some respite from the haze with new measures announced yesterday by the Government.

Childcare centres and kindergartens can now tap subsidies from the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to retrofit their premises with portable air-conditioners.

And the Health Ministry has, through its Agency for Integrated Care (AIC), provided 146 standing fans and portable air coolers to 15 nursing homes, community hospitals and elderly day-care centres.

There are more than 60 such service providers dealing with long-term care, and many are not air-conditioned. Some 40per cent of the 1,000 or so childcare centres here also do not have air-conditioning, as well as half of about 500 kindergartens.

The subsidies for non air-conditioned childcare centres and kindergartens were put in place to provide children with a comfortable learning environment when schools shut their windows due to the haze, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said yesterday.

Childcare centres catering to a maximum of 100 children can receive subsidies of up to $3,000, while those with more than 100 children can get up to $4,000.

Kindergartens with a capacity of more than 150 pupils are entitled to up to $6,000, while smaller schools can get up to $4,000.

Childcare centres and kindergartens have until Aug 31 to apply to MSF for these subsidies, which are designed to help them air-condition "a sufficient area to accommodate all students".

Thereafter, the Early Childhood Development Agency will review the scheme.

Currently, childcare centres have at least one air-conditioned room.

Teachers should look out for youngsters with respiratory conditions and house them in these rooms when they need respite, said Mr Chan.

The MSF will meanwhile consider closing childcare centres and kindergartens if the 24-hour PSI forecast exceeds 300. This will be coordinated with the Education Ministry, said Mr Chan, but it is "not an automatic decision".

"The health of our children is our first consideration," he said. "We will also consider the impact to our economy - closing childcare centres and kindergartens has potential knock-on effects on parents' schedules."

Childcare centres and kindergartens welcomed the subsidies.

"This will help us defray costs and keep our children safe," said Mrs Adeline Tan, general manager of My First Skool, which has more than 90 non air-conditioned centres islandwide.

As for the elderly in various facilities, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that the additional equipment would allow windows to be closed when the haze worsens. This maintains air circulation while keeping temperatures down.

He made the comments during a visit yesterday to Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, which has set up 12 air coolers. Assistant chief executive T.T.Pang said several elderly residents of the nursing home had reported minor haze-related complaints, such as breathlessness.

Some $36,000 has been spent by the AIC, which has lent the equipment out on request since last Saturday.

Mr Gan also said the Health Ministry is working with retailers and distributors to restore their usual sources of supply of face masks. So far, some four million masks have been released from the Government's stockpile over the weekend, after shops ran out of stock last week.

The latest round of measures came as Singapore enjoyed a bout of rain for the first time since haze swept over the city.

But President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who was also at Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, voiced words of caution. He was confident the country would make it through this "trying period", but said efforts must go on as one "can't expect this nice period to continue".

He warned: "We have had a respite from the haze over the past two or three days... But fundamentally, things haven't changed. Fires are still burning in Indonesia. The haze will be back."

Singapore prepares for more hazy days
Govt, businesses looking ahead even as air quality is good for now
By Feng Zengkun Environment Correspondent & Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2013

FOR a brief spell yesterday, Singapore's skies were the cleanest they have been in two weeks.

Between 3pm and 6pm, Singaporeans breathed "good" air as the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) dipped below 51. It hit a low of 38 at 4pm, before climbing again.

Even so, despite the better quality air and the reprieve from the haze the past five days, the Government yesterday continued to roll out preparation plans as it cautioned that the respite could be short-lived.

"Our latest meteorological assessment is that the haze in this region is likely to persist for quite some time more, and Singapore remains at risk," Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

Visiting cleaners and a water treatment plant, he outlined how cleaning and waste collection services could be slowed if the haze returned with a vengeance, and urged Singaporeans not to let their guard down.

However, he also gave the assurance that the country's clean water supply was not in danger, as its treatment and distribution process is largely automated.

"Whatever happens, your water is going to continue to flow from your taps, and your water is going to be good and safe to drink," he said.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry said in a statement yesterday that it is working with manufacturers and suppliers to replenish its stocks and to ensure there are enough masks here.

To date, it has released a total of 4.15 million N95 masks from its stockpile. This includes one million masks which have gone to the People's Association for distribution to low-income families, and the balance to retailers.

"The cost of the masks, including transport and storage, is recovered from the retailers," the ministry said in a reply to queries from The Straits Times.

It warned the public against counterfeit masks, and advised consumers to buy masks from major supermarkets and pharmacies.

People are also advised to approach the manufacturers or distributors if they doubt the authenticity of the masks.

Yesterday, the Education Ministry said it is also monitoring the haze situation closely, ahead of the start of the school term next week.

It will refer to the authorities' health advisories and will work with schools to "put in place appropriate measures to ensure the well-being of our students and staff", said a spokesman.

Those expecting the spell of better quality air to last may be disappointed: The National Environment Agency (NEA) predicts a slight haze today and tomorrow, though thundery showers are forecast over the two days.

This is because low-level winds blowing from the south or south-west may bring the pollution from raging fires in Indonesia back here.

NEA added that the 24-hour levels of smaller, toxic particles called PM2.5 are also expected to remain slightly higher than usual today.

It said that for this reason, pregnant women, the elderly and children should continue to minimise prolonged outdoor activity, while those with chronic lung and heart diseases should stay indoors if possible.

MOH to refresh stockpile of N95 masks
But public hospitals unlikely to keep selling them once their stocks run out
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2013

WHILE the Ministry of Health (MOH) assured yesterday that it will refresh its stockpile of N95 masks, public hospitals are unlikely to continue selling them once their stocks run out.

Changi General Hospital, for instance, is no longer selling masks after they ran out at the weekend. Others such as National University Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital are likely to follow suit.

The Straits Times understands that the move is aimed at diverting the sales to retail outlets instead. Long queues had formed last week at many hospitals, causing chaos at some.

Meanwhile, retailers say the prices of masks have remained the same since the mad rush for them when the haze worsened last week, even though prices for the same mask may differ across retailers.

Some have dropped prices to make it more affordable for consumers, said retailers like NTUC Unity.

Retailers also carry different models of N95 masks, which are priced differently. The most commonly seen is the white 8210.

FairPrice and NTUC Unity both sell these for $2.25 each. NTUC Unity had reduced the price from $2.50 last Saturday. Guardian sells these for $2.50 each, down from $2.80 since Sunday, while Watsons now sells them at $2.80, down from $3.

The retailers also have other models of N95 masks, but while NTUC Unity sells them all at a flat rate of $2.25, Guardian sells the higher-end model at $3.90.

The models differ in design and packaging, but are the same in terms of their effectiveness in keeping out microscopic particles.

Sales of the N95 masks from Watsons, Guardian, Unity and Fairprice are limited to 10 pieces per person.

The mask's manufacturer, 3M Singapore, said on Monday that it has not increased prices to distributors and retailers. Its recommended retail prices for three N95 models range from $1.80 to $2.50 per piece. It added that these prices are conveyed to distributors and retailers, but the company is "not in a position to manage final retail prices or comment on final retail pricing".

Public hospitals here sell N95 masks at an average of $2.50 per piece. But last week, Tan Tock Seng Hospital came under fire from consumers who said its masks - at $60 for a box of 20 - were overpriced. It had to clarify that it has always sold them at that price. It has since apologised and lowered the price to $50.

Yesterday, MOH advised the public to buy masks from major supermarkets and pharmacies. It is also advising consumers to approach manufacturers or distributors if they have doubts about the authenticity of the mask.

"The N95 mask can be re-used as long as it is kept clean and its shape remains intact," said an MOH spokesman, adding that the average shelf life of N95 masks is three to five years.

Meanwhile, even as the haze abates, companies are continuing to distribute masks to staff.

Last Friday, printing company Fuji Xerox gave N95 masks to each of its 850 staff.

Maybank Singapore also provided its 1,600 employees, as well as its security and cleaning staff, with N95 masks on the same day.

Earlier this week, Singapore Press Holdings ordered more than 10,000 masks for all staff, including its newspaper vendors. It has started distributing masks to employees, as well as its delivery workers, security guards, dispatch riders and sales staff.

Quality of drinking water unaffected by haze: Vivian
By Grace Chua And Feng Zengkun, The Straits Times, 27 Jun 2013

DESPITE the particles swirling in the haze, the quality of Singapore's drinking water remains intact, unaffected by the rain of the past two days, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

The reason: The particles would have been filtered out when the water is being treated at the reservoir, he said.

The assurance was given by Dr Balakrishnan during his visit to a water treatment plant, when he also stressed that whatever happens, water will continue to flow from the taps, and it will "be good and safe to drink".

He said: "PUB has been monitoring water quality quite obsessively over the past couple of weeks and... there has been absolutely no impact on the quality of our water both in terms of raw water and treated water which we are putting out to the public."

Agreeing, Mr Chong Kee Sen, vice-president of the Institution of Engineers Singapore, reiterated that local tap water is safe to drink.

"In the treatment of water, particulates that are smaller than 2.5 microns are filtered out," he said.

Yesterday, the National Environment Agency (NEA) also said the rain that fell in the past two days was not toxic.

Acid rain, said NEA deputy chief executive officer Joseph Hui in response to queries on Tuesday, results from sulphur dioxide that reacts with water to form sulphuric acid. Haze particles do not produce such a reaction.

But studies have shown that rain does not fully wash the microscopic PM2.5 particles from the air, unlike PM10 particles.

Smaller, lighter particles linger in the air and take longer to be removed, the NEA said. What is more, new pollution could arise as burning in Indonesia continues.

Beyond putting to rest people's fears, the NEA also announced measures it will take should the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index reading cross 300, which indicates hazardous air.

The cleaning of public areas, rubbish collection and recycling services may have to be scaled back to protect workers, it said.

Outdoor dengue inspections may also have to be reduced, but there will be no let-up on checks on homes because the epidemic shows no sign of slowing.

As for school attendance, Dr Balakrishnan said it was too early to tell if schools should reopen as scheduled on Monday.

His ministry is monitoring the situation and would work with the Education Ministry, he said.


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