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  Malaysia haze crisis worsens as air turns unhealthy

Associated Press | August 9, 2005

KUALA LUMPUR - Air in many parts of Malaysia turned unhealthy as a weeklong haze blamed on forest fires in neighboring Indonesia worsened on Wednesday, and the government said it may declare an emergency and close schools.

Hospitals reported a spurt in complaints of respiratory and eye ailments from the dust and smoke-laden white haze, which hung over Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, and seven othertowns.

A Department of Environment statement said air quality in the eight places was unhealthy, one step short of hazardous.

"We are very concerned. I'm worried that the air pollution index is worse than we think," said Gurmit Singh, who heads a non government environment watchdog.

The air quality in Port Klang near Kuala Lumpur dipped to hazardous level, the Star newspaper said in its short text message service sent over cellular phones. The Department of Environment, however, refused to confirm the report.

The haze wrapping tropical Kuala Lumpur resembled fog in a European city on a wintry morning but the hot and humid outdoors belied the impression. The visibility at Kuala Lumpur International Airport fell to 1 kilometer but no flights were affected.

An emergency may be declared if the air quality becomes hazardous, Uttusan Malaysia newspaper reported. That would entail closing schools and shortening work hours to reduce people's exposure to pollution.

Education Minister Hishamuddin Hussein has already given school authorities the power to decide if they want to suspend classes immediately.

"They should consider health, safety and surroundingconditions. They should not hesitate to make a decision," he told reporters. (*)

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