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Palm-Oil Giants Dodge Responsibility for Toxic Smog Covering Singapore

Record-breaking hazardous smog forces millions indoors

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

(Photo: Skylan Kao/Creative Commons/For Decades, Smog Has Filled the Singapore Skyline)As a hazardous pollution fog blankets Singapore, environmentalists charge that the nation's vast palm-oil industry's slash-and-burn tactics sparked the environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, the Singapore government points its fingers at nearby Indonesia as the palm-oil industry avoids fire.

The thick haze is filling the air with fumes so hazardous that officials have ordered the city-state's over five million residents to shutter up inside.

The heavy pollution obstructs passing light, and the BBC reports that stores are quickly running out of face masks as the crisis sets off panic.

No one knows when the record-breaking pollution will subside, but Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien posited that the toxins could remain 'several weeks and quite possibly longer'.

Toxins in the atmosphere continue to climb to dangerous levels. Bloomberg News reports:

Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index jumped to a record 371 at 1 p.m., a level deemed hazardous, the National Environment Agency, or NEA, said on its website, and more recently was at 292. Malaysia said air pollution in Johor, which borders Singapore, reached hazardous levels of as high as 383.

The smog is not confined within Singapore's borders. Some areas of Malaysia also face smog hazards.

Greenpeace has blasted palm-oil companies, many of them Singapore-based, for their slash-and-burn method of clearing forests for plantations in the region.

The U.S.-based Cargill corporation numbers among the companies accused of slash-and-burn tactics.

Singapore government leaders are directing their anger at the nearby Indonesian island of Sumatra, claiming that the country holds responsibility for the fires that spurred the environmental disaster.

The Indonesian government is lashing back, insisting that Singapore must be accountable for its palm-oil companies that operate throughout the region.

Environmental activists insist the problem transcends national borders, and so must the solution. The AFP reports:

“Singapore is saying that Indonesia needs to enforce the law,” Bustar Maitar, head of Indonesia Forest Campaign at campaign group Greenpeace International, told AFP.

“But in actual fact, some palm oil plantations in Indonesia are listed in Singapore and have headquarters in Singapore. A lot of Malaysian plantations are also based here in Indonesia,” Maitar said.

“In my perspective, it is not only Indonesia. Singapore should also ask its companies who invest in Indonesia to not use fire, doing the same thing to enforce the law and increase environmental awareness.” 

Smog has been a point of contention between the two countries, as toxic haze has worsened over the past decade. Yet their trading relationship remains close, and the palm-oil industry has so far dodged accountability for slash-and-burn tactics.

The New York Times points out that this latest crisis adds to region-wide disaster as pollution soars across Asia:

The problems in Singapore and Malaysia come at a time of increasing concern about pollution across Asia, particularly in China, where pollution readings this year have been at least 30 percent higher than in previous years.

Commuters cover their mouths as they wait to cross a road in the haze in Singapore June 20, 2013. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Tourists wearing face masks look at the hazy skyline of the Singapore business district June 20, 2013. Singapore's haze deteriorated to "hazardous" levels late on Wednesday as smoke from slash-and-burn land clearing in Indonesia enveloped the city-state, inflaming tensions between the Southeast Asian neighbours. The Pollution Standards Index (PSI) soared to a record high of 321 at 10 p.m., up from 290 just an hour earlier and below 200 earlier in the day. A PSI reading above 300 indicates "hazardous" air quality, while a reading between 201 and 300 means "very unhealthy". REUTERS/Edgar Su

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