Last Thursday, on 20 June 2013, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Vivian Balakrishnan had said that, had said:
“We are probably the only country that’s publishing 3-hourly rolling average PSI. If you look at PSIs in almost any other jurisdictions, it will be on a 24-hour average and the updating is not going to be at an hourly interval and published almost instantly as what we have now.”
This blog had written an article to rebut Minister Vivian’s claim (here) that “other jurisdictions” publish only 24-hour average readings. It received a rebuttal by the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) (link and link) and a blog, sgthinker, which claims to “provide a moderate voice in the growing online debate about the state of Singapore’s society”, which wrote an article, titled, “Dumb and Dumber Singaporean Reactions to the Haze” (link), and made a scathing attack on The Heart Truths. The blog owner had said:
“Of particular note is The Heart Truths, a site that claims to come across as a level-headed critique of the PAP, but is actually a site that uses half-truths and misquoted information. For example, the author tried to poke holes at VB’s claims that “other countries also use 24-hour averages for their air quality indices”. However, this claim was swiftly rebutted by MEWR, who honestly speaking should be concentrating on tackling the haze rather than rebutting unfounded online accusations. I would urge readers to boycott The Heart Truths. Life’s too short to read the lies of this author.”
The ruling party PAP eventually shared sgthinker’s article on their Facebook page.
Photo credit: publichouse.sg’s Facebook page
In this article, I would like to present the collated arguments that I have seen and read thus far pertaining to this discussion. I would leave it to readers to make up their own minds as to what they would understand.
A commenter on my Facebook page surmised that the confusion with the discussion could have arisen from this:
“You are right about Vivian being wrong about (how) other countries (do not have) hourly update(s), because the frequency of updating is separate from the sampling time. Alot of (people) tend to mix up the two.”
Another commenter on this blog had said the following:
You can refer to this link to find out what a “straw man argument” means.
The blog, Furry Brown Dog further opined in an article (link) that, “Having reviewed the links, I believe the verdict on the blogger’s and MEWR’s claim is mixed.”
Furry Brown Dog went on to delve deeper into the technical specifics behind the indexes. With regard to Hong Kong’s index to measure air pollution, Furry Brown Dog elaborated:
“My own interpretation is that PM2.5 pollutant concentration levels, while not (yet?) incorporated in the overall AQI air quality index have been recognised to be sufficiently important to be reported on a spot hourly basis as opposed to a 24-hour rolling average. MEWR on the other hand appears to be correct that PM10 concentrations are reported as a 24-hour rolling average. Oddly, MEWR made no mention of how PM2.5 pollutant concentration levels are reported for Hong Kong. Why?”
Furry Brown Dog had also said that, “On this point, MEWR appears to be solid ground especially since the AQI to pollutant concentration calculator explicitly states that PM2.5 and PM10 readings are based on 24-hour averages.” However, Furry Brown Dog goes on to counter that this isn’t actually the case as there are indeed “hourly PM2.5 pollutant concentration readings (which) are available for the city of Newburg” and “another state, Oregon (which) also provides real-time data“. This shows that hourly data is not also possible but is other being done in “other jurisdictions”.
Interestingly, the Environmental Protection Department in Hong Kong had also said that, “Singapore reports API every three hours, and Melbourne and Taipei report API every hour.”
On America’s index for air pollution, Furry Brown Dog surmised the following:
“What can we make of these couple of examples? Firstly while MEWR is technically and literally correct that the federal environmental agencies do not mandate anything more frequent than a 24-hour averaging time period for PM10 and PM2.5 concentration reporting, states can and do go the extra mile in providing real-time data available on their website. In the case of Singapore, which isn’t exactly a large country like the United States, there is essentially no difference between a federal agency and a state agency. NEA plays both roles. If state-level environmental agencies from Oregon and New York can provide real time spot hourly PM10, PM2.5 pollutant concentration updates, why not NEA?”
Furry Brown Dog goes on to illustrate that the Environmental Protection Agency of the state of Victoria in Australia’s uses an index where “This bulletin is updated hourly with information calculated on data readings averaged over 8 hours for carbon monoxide and 1 hour for PM10, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and visibility reduction” and that the, “The Canadian province of Ontario also provides real time spot hourly PM2.5 pollutant concentration readings.” He further questioned that, “If these state-level agencies can provide real time spot hourly PM2.5 and PM10 pollutant concentration readings why can’t NEA do likewise? Food for thought.”
We Need Hourly Updates Of The PSI Readings
Furry Brown Dog further shared Hong Kong’s ‘A Study of the Air Pollution Index Reporting System’ report (link) and propounded that, “does it not tell us that the study’s expert authors recognised that a 24-hour averaging time would cause the air quality index to lag behind actual pollutant concentrations which is similar to the critics’ argument that a 24-hour averaging period is too slow?”
Furry Brown Dog’s views were further echoed by Jiahao Chen who said, on his Facebook page (link), that, “there is a genuine problem with reporting the 3-hour average, which is the obvious one that it lags behind the actual measurement by about 2 hours. The most severe example here is on the morning of June 21, when the estimated hourly PSI shot up to ~400 while the officially reported figure was still in the 150s. Two hours is a lot of time that can be used for people to make decisions about their activities and exposure to pollution.”
The Problem With Singapore’s PSI Index
Calvin Cheng proposed another method of looking at the discussion by saying on his Facebook page that, “Comparing PSI to PM10 and AQI measurements in other countries is comparing apples to oranges (because) AQI is an index that has inherent in it HOURLY measurements.” He further elaborated that, “the weakness of PSI thus is inherent in the way its index is formulated and not whether it is released hourly, 3-hourly or 24-hourly” and surmised that, “We should change to AQI like the US and most other developed countries as it is based on hourly measurements.”
Source: Calvin Cheng’s Facebook Page
Other Governments Provide Hourly Readings Because Their Citizens Campaign Against The Government To Do So
In Hong Kong, The Environmental Protection Department had announced last year that they would “commenced the regular reporting in real time of fine suspended particulates (also known as PM2.5). The data will reveal the hourly concentrations of PM2.5 as measured by the EPD’s air quality monitoring network, which comprises 11 general stations and three roadside stations.”
The Wall Street Journal had reported that Hong Kong had done so because:
“Hong Kong has decided to come clean with data on a dangerous form of air pollution, a month and a half after Beijing, a city with smoggier skies and a murkier approach to statistics, did the same.
After years of withholding the data, Hong Kong’s environmental protection department on Thursday began publicly releasing hourly measurements of the tiny pollutants known as PM2.5 – so called because they are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter – that health experts say are especially threatening because they penetrate deeply into the lungs.
Beijing found itself caught in a maelstrom of public fury last year, following a mass campaign to push the city to begin releasing hourly PM2.5 data, a cause championed online by real estate billionaire Pan Shiyi, among other notables. The campaign was prompted in part by the fact that since 2009, the U.S. Embassy had been releasing real-time readings of such pollutants in Beijing via its Twitter feed.”
The report further said that, “Green groups in Hong Kong offered a tepid response to the environmental protection department announcement, finding fault with the city’s measurement methodology.”
Hong Kong is not the only region where its citizens campaigned to their government to provide hourly real-time updates on the situation of the air pollution to its people.
As recently as just two days ago, on Tuesday 25 June 2013, Malaysia announced that, “the Air Pollutant Index (API) readings will now be updated on an hourly basis.” The Department of Environment (DOE) director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan said that the readings are being made available on an hourly basis because, “We are giving it out every hour due to the public’s request.”
The PSI Index Needs To Be Revised
According to a research article, titled, “Comparison of the Revised Air Quality Index with the PSI and AQI indices”:
“The Pollution Standards Index (PSI) was initially established in response to a dramatic increase in the number of people suffering respiratory irritation due to the deteriorating air quality. The PSI was subsequently revised and implemented by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1999, and became known as the Air Quality Index (AQI) that includes data relating to particle suspension, PM2.5, and a selective options of either 8-hour or 1-hour ozone concentration during increased O3 periods.
However, not all countries might have migrated to the new index because according to the article, “the costs of launching a network of PM2.5 monitoring stations are prohibitively high for many countries to implement the AQI from the PSI system in the foreseeable future.”
According to AirNow, a website developed by “U.S. EPA, NOAA, NPS, tribal, state, and local agencies”, “the revised Index provides more accurate and specific information on health risks associated with exposure to air pollution. This, in turn, will help individuals make informed decisions regarding actions to avoid or reduce their exposure to these pollutants.”
Importantly as well, when the index was being revised, it “was developed through extensive coordination with public information, health, and air quality experts from state and local agencies, as well as input from the general public through EPA-sponsored focus groups. For example, EPA sponsored eight focus groups in major U.S. cities to help evaluate how to most effectively communicate air quality and health effects information. Numerous state and local agencies and associations also participated through workshops to provide comment on the Index revisions.”
Singaporeans’ Concerns Are Real And Need To Be Positively Responded To
Similarly, is there a need for Singapore to relook the PSI index and modify it to ensure that the index is able to respond to Singaporeans’ needs, especially with the re-occurrence of the haze in such an intensity?
At the height of the haze, Singaporeans were voicing out their concerns about the PSI readings, as well as how the readings were being calculated and reported, because we were genuinely concerned about our health, and wanted to have up-to-date information, so that we could protect ourselves adequately. Moving from a less than adequate 3-hourly average reading to an even less specific 24-average reading would be detrimental to our health and would result in severe limitations in our ability to take steps to protect our health.
It is thus disappointing that the MEWR had charged that Singaporeans who had voiced out their genuine concerns as being rumour-mongers. At the height of the haze, most Singaporeans would expect for there to be consistency in the communication of information to us. It was thus disconcerting when Minister Vivian had announced that the government was moving towards publishing 24-hourly results. Not only would information become less forthcoming, Singaporeans would also not be able to be fully informed of the haze situation and wouldn’t be able to take adequate steps to protect themselves from the haze.
Similar campaigns launched in the other countries have resulted in their governments responding favourably by responding positively to the people’s real needs for open and accessible information. It is unwise if the government were to dispel these genuine concerns as rumours and in doing so, not address them.
At the height of last week’s haze, many Singaporeans had voiced their concerns about the adequacy and accuracy of the PSI readings. It is clear that the hourly and real-time updates of the readings would be greatly appreciated by Singaporeans. Also, it is clear that the PSI index currently used by the government might not be as comprehensive as necessary for the computation of the readings, as well as in the pollutant agents that it measures.
In the interest of Singaporeans, the MEWR should look into developing a protocol which should also ensure the hourly updates of PSI readings and in the longer term, to revise the PSI index, to take into account the new technologies available to monitor air pollution. This is of utmost importance, considering that the problem of the haze has plagued Singapore for more than 20 years now. An index which is refined and updated and which provides real-time updates will provide better protection for Singaporeans’ health and well-being.
I would like to thank all readers and commenters on this blog and my Facebook page for your valuable opinions. I would also like to thank Furry Brown Dog for this excellent article which had provided this article with valuable input.