It’s haze season. At first you think it’s just a bit of morning mist, except that instead of fading away as the sun climbs into the sky and the air heats up, it stays and in fact gets thicker. 

Some days it’s just a mild fuzziness in the air, barely noticeable to the nose. Other days it’s thick, almost fog-like, with a bitter, acrid taste as you breathe. Much like standing downwind of a garden bonfire. Except this comes from hundreds of miles away in Indonesia and covers thousands of square miles.

After a few days of it, your throat may start to feel slightly sore – nothing too bad, but you find your voice becoming raspy and that little itch in the back of your throat makes you cough a little more often than usual. You may find yourself coughing up big gobs of phlegm here and there.

There’s not a lot you can do about it. The general advice is to stay indoors and, if you must go out, wear a face mask. These range from simple disposable surgical masks of the type people wear to avoid spreading germs when they have a cold, to more substantial reusable ones designed to keep fumes out, often used by city cyclists even in the best weather. Very few people here seem to bother though.

I find NeilMed SinusRinse helps. I’ve used it for years in any case, to help keep my sinuses clear and avoid post-nasal drip. It also helps keep your nasal passage clear of dust and pollen, thus reducing susceptibility to hayfever and the like. I’m not sure it does much to mitigate the effects of breathing in what is basically poison (that’s where masks come in) but it does at least do wonders for getting rid of all the crap left behind in your nose. Highly recommended (once you get used to the initially strange sensation of squirting warm water up your nose…).

As I understand it, there are two ways of measuring haze levels – the Air Quality Index (AQI) and the Air Pollutant Index (API). I’m not entirely sure what the differences are and they both seem to be measured on much the same scale:

  • 0-50 Good
  • 51-100 Moderate
  • 101-200 Unhealthy
  • 201-300 Very Unhealthy
  • 300+ Hazardous

At ‘moderate’ level, you notice it, if you pay attention – the air feels thicker. At ‘unhealthy’ you know you’re breathing in something you shouldn’t be. I’ve yet to experience ‘very unhealthy’, and hope I never will.

Kuala Lumpur seems to have ranged between around 80 (moderate) to 200 (unhealthy) for most of August and September, and even now as I finish writing this post in mid-October, I’m still regularly seeing 60-70. I’m told it doesn’t usually last this long – this is an exceptional year.

I’m not sure what normal is here as I never bothered to check the AQI/API readings until the haze appeared, but I’d like to think it’s well below 50, notwithstanding that KL does suffer plenty of traffic pollution and construction dust. Outside of haze season, the air doesn’t usually feel too bad, and certainly looks a lot less dirty than it does now.

August / September is probably a good time to be somewhere else.

For reference, the sites I use to check the air quality are: