I recall reading an article in a newspaper a few years back about the experience of a Ms Chia with the haze, one that perfectly exemplifies the long-term dangers of this phenomenon.
In 1994, when the haze hit Malaysia and Singapore, Chia, who was 47 at the time, developed a persistent cough that went on for months, until she had to be hospitalised for 10 days. She shared: “I didn’t have asthma in my childhood. I had not even heard of it.”
Chia is in her 60s now, but has not stopped taking medication for asthma, a condition she said that she “will have to take to her grave”.
While the haze was not responsible for causing Chia’s asthma, it was almost certainly the trigger that set off an underlying genetic predisposition. If it happened to her, it can happen to you too.
Many women are worried about the deterioration of their health whenever the haze strikes, but are unsure of how to handle their needs, as well as that of their young children.
So, to start, it is important to understand how the haze affects you and what you can do about it.
The haze is made up of a mixture of suspended particles – water vapour, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, and even poisonous chemicals like cyanide, ammonia and formaldehyde.
Ground-level ozone and particle pollution are two common threats to our health. Haze conditions can cause your eyes and nose to burn, your throat to itch, and pave the way to other health issues.
Exposure to air pollutants at high levels over a long period of time may lead to cancer, birth defects in the young, brain and nerve damage, and long-term injury to the lungs and breathing passages.
Air pollution affects everyone, but some groups are more susceptible than others – in serious cases, it may be necessary to consult your doctor about adjusting the dosage of medicines you take for other chronic health conditions.
Your body will show tell-tale signs if the haze is unduly affecting your health:
• Nose: Particles that irritate the nose causes swelling and blockage in the nasal passage, due to oversecretion of mucous. Taking antihistamines can mitigate the symptoms.
• Airways and lungs: Your lungs and airways may produce phlegm when they experience inflammation. As you cough to expel the phlegm, more gets produced, and the cycle keeps repeating.
• Heart: A body that is under stress will cause the heart to pump faster, increasing blood pressure. Your body also produces chemicals that make your blood clot more easily, but these symptoms can lead to heart attack or stroke.
• Eyes: Dust from the haze dries your eyes, leaving the conjunctiva (the surface of the whites of your eyes) vulnerable to tearing and inflammation. Place a warm towel over your eyes for a few minutes to alleviate the discomfort.
• Skin: People with healthy skin need not worry about the haze affecting them, but if you suffer from eczema problems, you can benefit from applying moisturiser a few times a day.
How can the haze affect older women?
In older women, severe air pollution can aggravate symptoms of cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases. Older adults tend to be greatly affected by airborne toxic chemicals, with women over the age of 50 exhibiting more health symptoms than men over 50.
The effects can extend beyond cardiovascular issues. Long-term exposure to toxic gasses may cause cancer or dementia, and postmenopausal women could experience loss of bone mass due to lead exposure.
This may increase the risk of kidney damage, high blood pressure and decreased cognitive functions.
How can the haze affect women who are pregnant or nursing?
Pregnant or nursing women tend to have less capacity in their lungs during hazy conditions.
If a pregnant woman isn’t getting enough air in her body, it means that her baby isn’t getting enough either.
Birth complications like miscarriage, pre-term birth and interruptions in foetal development can occur if there is prolonged exposure to toxic substances like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium and pesticides.
How can the haze affect children’s health?
We must not forget that the haze affects young children more, and there are various reasons why.
Children are more vulnerable as they breathe faster, have a higher metabolic rate, and have lungs and other organs that are still developing. Their intake of food, liquids and air are higher than adults’, relative to their body weight, and thus, the intake of toxins increase accordingly, posing a greater danger to organ development.
Children are also more physically active outdoors, causing them to breathe in more air pollutants. Newborn babies who are affected by the haze display symptoms like eye infection, runny nose, dry cough, and possibly, difficulty breathing.
The best way to fight off any symptoms in babies is to keep them indoors. Place your precious one in a clean room with a fan or air-conditioner on, and keep doors and windows closed. Regular saline drops can help remove dust particles and eye irritants.
Tips to stay safe and healthy
As individuals, we are unable to do anything to stop the haze, but there are many simple and effective ways to keep our homes free from harmful haze particles.
Keep your doors and windows shut. Until the air purity readings improve to “moderate” or “good”, shut all doors and ventilation outlets in your house.
You will come home to a house with still air, but that is much better than sharing your space with millions of harmful particles that settle onto your curtains and furniture.
Use the air purifier. Even with all doors and windows shut, dust particles can still seep in through small cracks and holes. If you do not own an air purifier, boil some water and try letting the steam that rises up clear the air.
Stay hydrated. You should drink at least two litres of water daily, as our bodies are working extra hard to keep healthy. Carry a refillable water bottle with you if you are constantly on the go.
It’s also quite important to stay away from coffee and alcohol, as both are diuretics that will dehydrate your body even more.
Boost your immune system. Be sure to have a balanced daily intake of protein, calcium, carbohydrates and good fats. You should also be getting enough vitamins C and E, and omega-3 fatty acids from the foods you eat.
Leave home prepared with must-have items. Face mask, eye drops, tissues, wet wipes and a bottle of water are the things you should bring with you when you go out.
In case of red eyes or a scratchy throat, or even mild breathing problems, these items can provide some relief.
If you are outdoors for prolonged periods, be sure to wash your hands regularly. When you get home, take a shower to wash away toxins on your skin.
Seek professional help. It’s common to experience mild symptoms due to the haze, but if any of the problems persist, you must seek your doctor’s help immediately.
Stay healthy, and share these health tips with your fellow Malaysians.
Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist. For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.