How (the haze and) I killed Singapore’s International Coastal Cleanup 2015

Since mid-August, I had been monitoring the conditions of the transboundary haze pollution in Singapore. I wanted to provide appropriate advise to the more than 60 Organisers I coordinate, who lead some 3,500 coastalcleanup volunteers. In addition, there are some 650 undergraduate students and TAs heading out to the field for modules at NUS which I coordinate.

The International Coastal Cleanup is a global annual exercise conducted every September. In Singapore, some 3,500 volunteers would work along our shores, engaged in marine trash cleanup work for up to two hours. This can be strenuous, especially to our urban citizens unfamiliar with manual labour!

First I informed Organisers that they should look out for poor conditions in the days leading to the event. At the worst, we would have to cancel everyone’s long-scheduled cleanup – despite the fact preparations had begun early in the year.

I reiterated that the ICC movement prioritises health of volunteers and any Organiser, who is primarily responsible at a site, should be comfortable about cancelling their event in the event of declining air quality. I also highlighted the need to identify vulnerable individuals and to take care to attend to those first.

[“ICCS Haze Advisory for Organisers: At air quality readings above 100psi, please consider cancelling your event!“]

That advisory, in addition to prevailing conditions of poorer air quality, was enough for half the groups to pull out. The others decided to wait for the morning of the 19th of September 2015, before making a decision.

The MOM guidelines that we had been referring to decide if an outdoor event was to go ahead were based on 24-hour PSI values – the previous 24-hours! These values do not reflect the actual conditions on the ground which can change dramatically in hours. I had been comparing readings with actual ground conditions and realised the more reflective guide were the 1-hr PM2.5(µg/m3) concentrations, which NEA had begun publishing from 2014.

So I issued a second advisory. This time the suggested upper limit for field work was a 1-hr PM2.5 value of 55.5 (µg/m3). This as based on US EPA guidelines which are based on 24-hour values, so were highly conservative. But I decided to err on the side of caution.

I also explained why I had not suggested donning N95 masks and working – unfamiliar individuals who rarely use masks would find these impeded breathing, and in any case, are often not properly worn. With safety of highest concern and with large groups of varying familiarity with health and safety issues, adopting a conservative guideline was a better strategy.

[“Haze Advisory to Organisers, update: Only hourly PM2.5 concentrations are suitable for a rapid response (and values > 55µg/m3 are unhealthy)“]

Finally the day of the cleanup arrived. And the 1-hr PM2.5 pre-dawn values had persisted above 100µg/m3 all morning. There were still Organisers working in the early morning to her volunteers up buses – they had persisted until the end in the hope of improved conditions. To them I issued my third email about the haze and took an additional step: I announced that ICCS could not accept cleanup data from that morning, to safeguard volunteers’ health. This was to safeguard against an enthusiastic organiser who who might abandon safety guidelines. Marine trash would just have to be tackled another day.

[“Cancelled – all cleanups on morning of Sat 19 Sep 2015: haze at unhealthy levels“]

In 2015, I had been organising coastal cleanups int he hope of protecting marine ecosystems for 18 years. I had begun coordinating ICCS in 2000. There was only one year in which Organisers had called off the event along beaches due to severe storms with my full support.

This time the cancellation was complete across all sites, on mangroves and beaches around the island. I cancelled practicals too, so the long-awaited LSM1103 Biodiversity practical to Changi Beach was cancelled, as were all independent research projects by the LSM2251 Ecology and the Environment class.

When it came down to it, though, the cancellation was easily done, in the interest of a coordinator’s primary responsibility – volunteer and student safety. Our thwarted hopes were simply victim to another of man’s impact on the planet, the 2015 Southeast Asian haze.

We will battle on!

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