Singapore, Malaysia dismiss study’s claim that haze caused over 100,000 premature deaths

Today Online 20 Sep 16;

SINGAPORE — The authorities in Singapore and Malaysia have dismissed a study, which claimed the Indonesian forest fires that choked a swathe of South-east Asia with a smoky haze for weeks last year may have caused more than 100,000 premature deaths in the region.

The study, which was conducted by scientists from Harvard University and Columbia University, is due to be published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The number of deaths is an estimate derived from a complex analysis that has not yet been validated by analysis of official data on mortality. The study said there is a high statistical probability that premature deaths ranged between 26,300 and 174,300. Its main estimate of 100,300 deaths is the average of those two figures. It projected 91,600 deaths in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore.

Commenting on the study, a Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) spokesperson on Monday (Sept 19) noted that the study “attempts to estimate the number of people who had premature deaths due to haze”.

“Such modelling studies are based on various assumptions. The validity of these assumptions influences greatly the accuracy of the estimates,” the spokesperson said. “We note that the modelling study does not take into consideration the mitigating measures that were implemented by countries affected by the haze. Hence, it is not reflective of the actual situation.”

The MOH pointed out that the age-standardised death rate in Singapore was not higher last year, compared with 2010 to 2014. In fact, the rate dipped steadily over the six years — from 3.6 in 2010 and 2011, to 3.2 last year.

The MOH spokesperson said that for healthy individuals, short-term exposure to haze will “generally not cause any major health issues, other than irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat”. Nevertheless, haze particles can affect the heart and lungs, especially in people who already have chronic heart or lung disease.

The study — which was hailed by environmental group Greenpeace as “groundbreaking” — considered only the health impact on adults and restricts itself to the effects of health-threatening fine particulate matter, often referred to as PM2.5, rather than all toxins that would be in the smoke from burning peatlands and forests.

Dr Lee Yeow Hian, a respiratory and sleep physician at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, noted the difficulty in attributing deaths to haze “especially for people who already have pre-existing conditions like heart disease, or stroke”. Nevertheless, he said it would be interesting to compare the number of deaths from various causes such as heart disease, diabetes and stroke in the last decade or so — when haze became a problem — with the earlier years. “If there is an increasing trend then maybe we can attribute some of it to the haze,” he said.

Prof Philip Eng, a senior consultant respiratory and ICU physician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said the Harvard and Columbia study pointed out “some very important facts”: Among other things, air pollution is a major cause of mortality and while it is difficult to accurately link seasonal short-term fluctuations in PM2.5 levels to mortality, there is certainly a “linear correlation”, he said. “There should be more research (on) how to lower the average PM2.5 levels,” Prof Eng said.

A spokesman for Indonesia’s environment ministry did not immediately have any comment on the study. Malaysia health ministry’s deputy director-general S Jeyaindran said his country did not have any haze-related deaths. “No such thing,” he told The Star Online. “We had no deaths last year directly related to the haze. We had increased number of conjunctivitis and respiratory track infections but it’s mostly due to the fact that some haze contained sulpher dioxide and nitric oxide which comes from the burning of fossil fuel.”

Mr Rajasekhar Bala, an environmental engineering expert at the National University of Singapore, was one of five experts who reviewed the paper and were not involved in the research. He said that even with caveats, the study should serve as a “wake-up call” for firm action in Indonesia to curb peatland and forest fires and for regional cooperation to deal with the fallout on public health.

The fires from July to October last year in southern Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo were the worst since 1997 and exacerbated by El Nino dry conditions. About 261,000ha of land were burned. Some of the fires started accidentally but many were deliberately set by companies and villagers to clear land for plantations and agriculture. WITH AGENCIES

Study on haze-related deaths 'not reflective of actual situation': MOH
Channel NewsAsia 19 Sep 16;

SINGAPORE: A study that estimates there were 2,200 premature deaths in Singapore due to the 2015 haze crisis is "not reflective of the actual situation", the country's Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Monday (Sep 19). The study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities in the US also said there were more than 100,000 premature deaths caused by transboundary haze from Indonesian forest fires.

MOH said such modelling studies are based on "various assumptions", and the validity of these assumptions influence the accuracy of the estimates. "We note that the modelling study does not take into consideration the mitigating measures that were implemented by countries affected by the haze," a spokesperson said in response to media queries.

The age-standardised death rate in Singapore was not higher in 2015, compared with the years 2010 to 2014, MOH added. Its figures show the age-standardised mortality rate per 1,000 residents in Singapore was 3.2 in 2015, compared to 3.3 in 2014 and 3.4 the year before.

The Health Ministry said that for healthy people, short-term exposure to haze over a few days would not generally cause any major health issues other than irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, in healthy individuals. However, haze particles can affect the heart and lungs, especially in people who already have chronic heart or lung disease.

"In past years, when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was consistently in the higher range, we have activated the Haze Subsidy Scheme to make it affordable for those with haze-related conditions to seek treatment," MOH said.

- CNA/mz

Malaysia questions Harvard study on haze
Melissa Goh, Malaysia Bureau Chief, Channel NewsAsia 21 Sep 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's health minister Dr S Subramaniam has questioned on Wednesday (Sep 21) the Harvard study that claimed there were 6,500 premature deaths in Malaysia during the 2015 Southeast Asian haze crisis.

Commenting on the report at a news conference at the health ministry, he said the finding is probably based on some computer generated postulation, a model he said is impossible to relate to.

"An 80-year-old fellow, he's got one, blood pressure, he got two, diabetes he got three, heart problem , than he is exposed to haze and then he died so what did he die of? One, two, three or four? Or all the above or none of the above? This is hell of a difficult question to answer, how to answer it? It's not possible."

The ministry says there was no sudden jump in the number of cardiac or respiratory deaths before, during or after the haze period.

"A lot of people have died but to what extent haze contributed to it, it's very difficult to tell. You see during the haze period we see an increase in number of patients with respiratory problems but I don't think we have seen striking increase in the number of mortality."

Nevertheless the authorities will study the report, to gain a better understanding and will response accordingly, the minister added.

Malaysia's response comes after Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) issued its own on Monday.

MOH said the study which estimates there were 2,200 premature deaths in Singapore due to the 2015 haze crisis is "not reflective of the actual situation".

The study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities in the US also said there were more than 100,000 premature deaths caused by transboundary haze from Indonesian forest fires.

MOH said such modelling studies are based on "various assumptions", and the validity of these assumptions influence the accuracy of the estimates.

- CNA/mn

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