KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 18 — Malaysia suffered RM1.57 billion in healthcare and loss of income opportunities in 2013 due to smoke from forest fires in Indonesia, according to a research paper published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) last year. 

The paper studied available data on smoke events in 1997, 2005 and 2013, and found substantial economic and health impact on Malaysia, as its authors urged Putrajaya to introduce laws against Malaysian firms whose operations abroad contribute to the pollution.

The study, first reported by news portal The Malaysian Insight, blamed the cause of haze on farmers and agri-businesses clearing the land for planting crops such padi and oil palm, resulting in uncontrolled forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

“The Shahwahid study showed that haze had affected the health of the economy in various ways,” the UKM authors wrote, referring to a 2016 study by academic M. Shawahid titled “The economic value of June 2013 haze impact on peninsula Malaysia.”

“This included the cost of illness, cost of medical treatment and hospitalisation, cost of medical-related leave taken as well as purchasing air pollution mask as protection.

“It also affects productivity as a whole when patients lose income opportunities when they are sick and this in turn affect the larger economy.”

The estimated losses from 2013 was from smoke-related illnesses, cost of medical leave, masks and loss of income opportunities which cost the country the most, making up about two-thirds of the total bill at RM958 million, the portal reported.

The study further estimated losses worth RM410.6 million in healthcare, including medical treatment and hospitalisation and production losses due to medical leave. Masks alone cost the government nearly RM20 million.

The Department of Environment in 2013 faced what it called a “haze emergency” in Muar and Ledang districts when the air pollutant index (API) in those areas reached 500 points — way above the 300 hazardous mark.

Most areas of the peninsula also recorded very unhealthy and hazardous levels in June 15-27 of that year, Insight said citing the paper.

Meanwhile in a separate 2014 study on the 2005 haze, the same UKM authors wrote that RM1.8 million was spent on hospital admissions due to smoke-related illnesses. 

The pollution has caused hundreds of schools to close nationwide as the API in various areas crossed into the 200 zone.

A consumer group said the UKM papers should prompt urgent action from the government as public frustration mounts over the choking haze now blanketing nearly every part of the country, with air quality now reaching near hazardous level. 

Consumer Association of Penang president Mohideen Abdul Kadir said although the primary responsibility of dealing with the smoke fell on Indonesia, Putrajaya could still do its part to prevent it from occurring every year.

“Some of our government-linked companies have subsidiaries which operate oil palm plantations in Indonesia who have been caught starting these fires,” Insight quoted him as saying.

The UKM paper authors also suggested the Malaysian government could do more to help its neighbour combat the annual menace.