Ready for bad air days

(Above, from right) Mr Francis Chen with his wife Grace, 57, their daughter-in-law Audrey, 27, and son Bryan, 30. He spent $1,500 on the five air purifiers for his family in January.
PHOTO: Ready for bad air days

SINGAPORE - With experts warning that this year's haze could last for up to three months, stores and consumers alike have been stocking up on air purifiers and face masks.

While retailers decline to reveal specific figures, major players that The Straits Times spoke to all say they have bumped up stocks.

Appliance retailer Gain City now has five times as many air purifiers compared with the same period last year.

Mr Damian Lien, its marketing manager, says the chain expects sales of its air purifiers to be triple that of last year's.

There was chaos when haze blanketed Singapore in June last year, as people scrambled for masks and air purifiers. The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading hit a record high of 401 on June 21.

Bad air days are expected again in the coming months, which experts say could be made worse by the El Nino effect. The weather phenomenon leads to severely dry weather and high temperatures.

Retailers are bracing themselves for any surge in demand, especially for air purifiers.

Harvey Norman says it has brought in about 21/2 times more stock than last year.

Over at FairPrice, average month- on-month sales of purifiers have increased threefold from February to April.

Mrs Mui-Kok Kah Wei, its director of purchasing and merchandising, credits the jump to a bout of haze in March as well as greater awareness of its impact on health.

At Courts, demand for air purifiers is triple that of last year.

Says Mr Tim Luce, chief executive of Courts Singapore: "We are anticipating even stronger consumer demand for air purifiers next month and have increased our supply significantly.

"We also anticipate a spillover effect on products such as air conditioners, air coolers and fans.

Masks, on the other hand, do not seem to be as popular.

Still, stores such as Watsons, Unity, FairPrice and Guardian Health & Beauty have been stocking up.

Mr Andy Wan, director of wholesale and housebrand at NTUC Unity Healthcare, says its stores have sufficient masks, including N95 and surgical masks, and are ready to replenish these quickly should supplies run low.

"We are also stocking up on other haze-related items, such as eye drops, inhalers and medication to relieve throat irritation," he adds. Some Singaporeans are ready to combat the haze too.

Restaurant owner Tan Ken Loon, 39, has spent about $3,000on eight air purifiers.

He lives in a three-storey townhouse in Pasir Panjang with his wife Carolina, 38, and their son, Kiefer, 10.

Three purifiers - an Air-O-Swiss Air Washer, Sharp Plasmacluster and Sanyo Virus Washer - are in the master bedroom.

Another four are placed throughout the house, such as in Kiefer's room, their domestic helper's room and the toilet in the master bedroom. One purifier has not been "deployed" yet.

Says Mr Tan: "We need so many because they do different things. The Air Washer is to remove pollutants such as dust and pollen. The Plasmacluster sanitises the air and the Virus Washer disinfects viruses, bacteria and mould."

The Tans also have at least 20 N95 masks and two respirators, which Mr Tan bought online, on standby.

Mrs Tan, a brand communications manager, says: "My husband is a hypochondriac. But I guess it's better to be too clean than not clean enough."

Mr Tan is not the only one with multiple air purifiers.

Mr Francis Chen, 58, has five purifiers in his 1,700 sq ft condominium unit in Buona Vista, where he lives with his wife, three grown-up children and their spouses.

The project manager in an engineering consulting firm bought the purifiers from Courts for $1,500 in January, as his eldest daughter, 33, is pregnant.

The purifiers are placed in each bedroom.

Mr Chen says: "Breathing clean air is important for your health. If you're exposed to the haze for a long time, it can be bad for you."

Doctors are expecting long lines of patients once the skies get hazy.

Dr Tay Tunn Ren, an associate consultant at Changi General Hospital's department of respiratory and critical care medicine, says: "The PSI has been good lately and patients are not feeling the effect of the haze yet. But when the haze situation was at its worst last year, I saw six to eight patients every month complaining of haze-related problems."

In the meantime, Chinese teacher Allison Qi, 36, is busy looking for an air purifier for her newborn son's nursery.

"I hope to get it before the haze comes, but I'm still deciding which model to get. By the time the skies are hazy, the purifiers might already be sold out."

How to choose the right mask

Masks are available at major pharmacies and supermarkets such as Unity, Watsons, Cold Storage and FairPrice.

The Government's haze microsite (www.haze.gov.sg) identifies two categories of masks designed to reduce exposure to airborne contaminants such as particles and gases.

The first is the N95 mask (below), which is certified to have 95 per cent filter efficiency by the United States National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

They come in different brands, colours, shapes and sizes. For example, a box of 20 N95 masks, which have adjustable noseclips and soft nose foam, is selling for $43 at FairPrice Xtra outlets.

The second type is the EN-149 mask, which meets a type of European standard for respiratory masks. These can filter 80 to 99 per cent of airborne dust particles.

They can be bought through the websites of their distributors, such as Greenham Safety & Workplace Supplies (www.greenham.com).

A pack of 20 Keep Safe FFP2 moulded respirators costs £16.30 (S$34) from Greenham.

If you want a customised mask, approach home-grown company Dream Lab One, which makes Totobobo masks. Made of flexible plastic, they can be cut to fit different face shapes. They also come with filters which can trap 92 to 96 per cent of fine dust and particles.

Dr Albert Lim, a consultant at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's department of respiratory and critical care medicine, says normal surgical masks can protect the wearer's nose and mouth from irritants in the air and are probably more comfortable to wear.

But these are not effective in filtering fine particles, which are what people should be worried about during the haze. Temporary exposure to these particles can cause discomfort in the throat, nose and eyes.

Prolonged exposure - of at least several hours - can potentially aggravate existing chronic lung disease or heart disease.

Dr Lim says: "People who find it hard to breathe while wearing the N95 mask can take it off at regular intervals for 'breaks'. They should also find a mask which fits them to reduce the sensation that it is difficult to breathe.

"If the N95 mask doesn't fit, they may want to consider alternatives such as the EN-149 masks."

How to choose the right air purifier

When shopping for an air purifier, consider the size of the room it is meant for and what you want it to do.

Purifiers are available at major appliance stores and can cost from $99 to more than $1,000 each.

The appliance has a stated area of coverage - typically between 15 and 70 sq m - which indicates the area in which it can clean the air effectively.

As a rough guide, a new three-room Housing Board flat is slightly smaller than 70 sq m.

In general, most air purifiers can remove dust particles.

Some also come with functions such as humidifying the air to relieve sinus problems and ionising the air to remove bacteria and viruses.

The Government's haze microsite (www.haze.gov.sg) says the main air pollutant during bouts of haze in Singapore is particulate matter. Other pollutants include sulphur dioxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Dr Philip Koh, 49, a general practitioner who is also chairman of the medical board at Healthway Medical Group, advises consumers looking to buy an air purifier to get one equipped with a highefficiency particulate air (Hepa) filter.

"Only these can get rid of particles of 0.1 to 0.3 microns in size," he says.

There are at least 17 brands of purifiers, such as Airion, Blueair, Coway, Daikin, Europace, Hitachi, Honeywell, Nanoe, LG, Mistral, Novita, Panasonic, Philips, Rowenta, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.

A spokesman for Courts says there should ideally be one air purifier in each bedroom and one in the living room.

For example, a four-room Housing Board flat with an area of 90 sq m should have one air purifier with a 40 sq m coverage in the living room and a purifier with a 21 sq m coverage in each of the three bedrooms.

Ms Joey Feng, 29, sales director of Air & Odor Management, an indoor air quality company, says that to maximise a purifier's efficiency, filters should be cleaned or serviced once every two to three months.

She adds that when using an air purifier, its air intake and output should not be obstructed by furniture or walls.

Doors and windows should also be closed for best results.

Those looking to buy a purifier can also check out the National Environment Agency's website - it has compiled a list of portable air cleaners for smoke haze.

The list is not exhaustive and was last updated about two weeks ago.

This article was first published on June 1, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.