Indonesian forest fires exposed 69 million people to 'killer haze'

Channel NewsAsia 16 Nov 16;

SINGAPORE: Wildfires in Indonesia and Borneo in 2015 exposed 69 million people to unhealthy air pollution and are responsible for thousands of premature deaths, new research has shown.

The study, published on Wednesday (Nov 16) in Scientific Reports, used detailed observations of the haze from Singapore and Indonesia, a press release from Newcastle University said.

By analysing hourly air quality data from a model at a resolution of 10km, the team showed that a quarter of the population of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia was exposed to unhealthy air quality conditions between September and October 2015. Previous studies looked at daily levels at a much lower resolution.

Estimating that between 6,150 and 17,270 premature deaths occurred as a direct result of the haze pollution, the research team - involving academics from the United Kingdom, United States, Singapore and Malaysia - said the study confirmed the extent of this public health crisis.

"To put this into perspective, we estimate that around 1 in 6,000 people exposed to the polluted haze from these fires died as a result. The uncertainty in these estimates is mostly due to the lack of medical studies on exposure from extreme air pollution in the area,” said the study's lead author, Dr Paola Crippa from Newcastle University.

“The wildfires of 2015 were the worst we’ve seen for almost two decades - as a result of global climate change, land use changes and deforestation. The extremely dry conditions in that region mean that these are likely to become more common events in the future, unless concerted action is taken to prevent fires," Dr Crippa added.


The UK-led study said in the two months of haze last year, levels of PM2.5 - the most dangerous of these tiny toxic particles in the air - were on average above 70 micrograms per cubic metre with peaks reaching 300 micrograms in densely populated areas such as Singapore, the study said.

WHO air quality guidelines state that levels of PM2.5 - a key smog indicator - should not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic metre in a 24-hour period.

Professor Dominick Spracklen, a co-author of the study based at the University of Leeds, explained: “In most of the UK, levels of PM2.5 are usually below 10 micrograms per cubic metre and we would consider a serious pollution episode to be where concentrations rose to above 30 micrograms per cubic metre.

"During these fires, Singapore experienced levels of pollution 10 times higher. It is hard for us in the UK to imagine air pollution as bad as that experienced across much of Indonesia and Singapore last autumn.

“If large fires occurred every year, repeatedly exposing the local population to polluted air, the number of deaths would rise substantially - to as many as 75,000. Our findings are consistent with a recent estimate of the number of deaths that occurred due to long-term exposure to air pollution from these fires.”

A study by Harvard and Columbia universities published in September said the 2015 haze crisis caused more than 100,000 premature deaths, with at least 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore. However Singapore and Malaysia's health ministries took issue with the findings, saying the modelling studies did not take into consideration mitigating measures implemented by countries affected by the haze.

- CNA/ec