An MCO 'side-effect': A breath of fresh air

TODAY is the 12th day of our movement control order (MCO) to contain the spread of Covid-19 here.

We will have to hang on a little longer until it ends on April 14.

But at the very least, we can breathe a sigh of relief for one thing, literally – our cleaner air right now.

Air quality is better now compared to before the MCO, according to data from the Air Pollutant Index (API) recorded by the Department of Environment (DOE).

"This could be due to the less traffic on roads and fewer activities during the MCO," says the DOE.

There are a total of 68 air monitoring stations throughout the nation under the department.

More of these stations recorded "good" air quality this week, compared to before March 18, when the MCO started.

For this week, air quality peaked on Thursday – the ninth day of the MCO, with 57% of the stations recording “good” air quality readings at 2pm.

This is a jump from 42% at the same time on March 17 – a day before the MCO began.

And a week before that only 28% of stations recorded good air quality.

“The general trend shows an improvement as of this week, compared to before the MCO was enforced.

“Even areas with 'moderate' air quality did not go beyond the 70 mark in the API, ” the department tells Sunday Star.

The air quality may have worsened slightly in the beginning of the MCO, but it steadily became cleaner from March 21.

In the API readings, smaller numbers indicate better air quality.

Good air quality is between 0 to 50 in the API, while moderate levels are between 51 and 100. Unhealthy readings are between 101 and 200, very unhealthy is from 201 to 300 and hazardous levels are above 300.

The area with the biggest improvement in air quality is Limbang in Sarawak, based on an analysis by Sunday Star on the DOE readings.

The district, which has an economy mainly based on the timber industry, recorded 60.4% less air pollution – from an API reading of 53 on March 17 to 21 on Friday.

In second place, Tawau in Sabah recorded 58.5% less air pollutants.

Its air quality stood at 17 in the API on Friday – one of the cleanest air readings in Malaysia that day.

Meanwhile, other places recorded minimal improvements such as Petaling Jaya in Selangor, where the air quality only improved by 5.4% from 56 to 53.

Ironically, there were also areas which had worsening air quality.

But even so, all readings were within "moderate" levels in the API.

The Cheras air monitoring station in Kuala Lumpur marked a 2% increase in air pollution while the Bandaraya Melaka station in Melaka recorded a 4% spike.

Seremban in Negri Sembilan recorded the highest increase in air pollutants (31.4%) from an API reading of 35 on March 17 to 46 on Friday.

Less air pollutants

To mitigate the Covid-19 situation here, the government imposed the MCO from March 18 to 31, but later extended it to April 14.

Under the MCO, travel is restricted among the public while non-essential services and businesses are temporarily halted.

With the limited movements and activities, the DOE notes a reduction of two air pollutants – nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

This is based on readings from its air monitoring stations in Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

“The main source of nitrogen dioxide is from motor vehicles. This gas recorded a decrease of between 48% and 75% from March 1 to 25.

"Sulphur dioxide is commonly produced by fuel burning equipment, especially stations that generate electricity, industries and vehicles as well, ” the DOE explains.

Its content fell by 23% to 34% within the same period,

However, the levels of fine particles floating in the air, known as PM2.5, have not differed much from pre-MCO days.

“This is partly due to the hot and dry weather. Other activities that produce dust particles are also still ongoing, ” the DOE says in a statement on Friday.

Another air pollutant – carbon monoxide, has also tapered down during the MCO, says Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences senior research fellow Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah.

The gas is commonly found in the exhaust fumes of vehicles like cars and motorcycles.

Prof Azizan, who has been personally monitoring the air quality in the Klang Valley, says there is less of it in the air in Kuala Lumpur since transportation and travelling is limited during the MCO.

“Based on my readings, the amount of carbon monoxide in Kuala Lumpur dropped from 208 ppb (parts per billion) on March 9 to 160 ppb on March 23, the sixth day of the MCO, ” he says.

He concurs that sulphur dioxide has also decreased.

“From 28.2 micrograms per cubic meter of air on March 9, it fell to 24.7 on March 23, ” he says.

This could be due to less generation of electricity from the limited operations by businesses, Prof Azizan suggests.

Dr Renard Siew, climate change adviser at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies, agrees that there are some positive effects on the environment from the MCO.

“As a start, because of the MCO, there isn’t as much travel on roads and long-haul flights have been suspended.

“This in itself reduces significantly the amount of carbon emissions into our atmosphere.

“The fact that non-essential services are asked to close and employees have to work from home reduces the amount of industrial energy consumption and waste generation, ” he points out.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, Malaysia produces about 23,000 tonnes of waste per day, says Dr Siew.

Temporary relief

While the fresher air is a welcome change, Dr Siew says that such effects are only for a short term.

“It is by no means a substitute for better environmental systems.

“Once the MCO is over, people will get back to their old ways of doing things and because of the need to catch up on “lost productive days”, we might even see a spike in environmental incidents, ” he says.

Such incidents may include waste spillage and energy consumption going up because of overtime work to make up for operation closures during the MCO.

“What we should be doing in times like this is to take the opportunity to create and think of a win-win situation.

“The systems we’re currently living in don’t work and can barely uplift our community in times of crisis. We must take this time to reflect on our ways and how we can change, ” he says.

With less human movement and activities, Malaysian Nature Society president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail says it is possible for nature to thrive during this time.

“As shown by some reports and social media posts, birds have been spotted happily feeding, resting and preening themselves, for example.

“Some pictures are not just in Malaysia but other countries, ” he says.

Prof Ahmad says the reduced movements and human activities will result in less pollution just for the time being.

“For now, it's more important for the public to follow the government’s advice to stay at home and stay safe, ” he adds.

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