Southeast Asian haze killed over 100,000
A SMOG outbreak in Southeast Asia last year may have caused over 100,000 premature deaths, according to a new study released yesterday that triggered calls for action to tackle the “killer haze”.
Researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities in the US estimated there were more than 90,000 early deaths in Indonesia in areas closest to haze-belching fires, and several thousand more in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
The new estimate, reached using a complex analytical model, is far higher than the previous official death toll given by authorities of just 19 deaths in Indonesia.
“If nothing changes, this killer haze will carry on taking a terrible toll, year after year,” said Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Yuyun Indradi.
“Failure to act immediately to stem the loss of life would be a crime.”
Indonesian authorities have previously insisted they are stepping up haze-fighting efforts by banning the granting of new land for palm oil plantations and establishing an agency to restore devastated peatlands.
The haze is an annual problem caused by fires set in forests and on carbon-rich peatland in Indonesia to quickly and cheaply clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.
The blazes occur mainly on Indonesia’s western Sumatra island and the Indonesian part of Borneo, with monsoon winds typically blowing the haze over Singapore and Malaysia.
Last year’s fires were among the worst in memory and cloaked large parts of the region in choking smog for weeks, causing huge numbers to fall ill and sending diplomatic tensions soaring.
The new study combined satellite data with models of health impacts from smoke exposure and readings from pollution monitoring stations, and estimated that 100,300 had died prematurely due to last year’s fires across the three countries.
They estimated there were 91,600 deaths in Indonesia, 6500 in Malaysia and 2200 in Singapore.
Greenpeace hailed the “groundbreaking” study they said for the first time gave a detailed breakdown of deaths from last year’s fires, but cautioned that the figure was a “conservative estimate”.
The study only looked at health impacts on adults and the effect of dangerous fine-particulate matter, known as PM 2.5. It did not examine the effect on youngsters or of the other toxins produced by the blazes.
In reality, infants are some of the most at risk from the haze, said Dr Nursyam Ibrahim from the West Kalimantan province branch of the Indonesian Medical Association on Borneo.
“We are the doctors who care for the vulnerable groups exposed to toxic smoke in every medical centre, and we know how awful it is to see the disease symptoms experienced by babies and children in our care,” said Dr Nursyam. –