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Frazzled by the Haze: the Continued Effects of Haze on Health, the Economy and the Environment

November 9, 2015

This is an update to the 2014 post Effects of Haze on Health, the Economy and the Environment. Bonus: check out the new ‘Effects on Pet Health’ section!

Republika’s front page makes a statement about the haze. Credit: Republika

Effects on Human Health

Forest fires occur every year in Indonesia and its effects can be felt throughout the year locally and internationally. This year’s haze crisis has been described by Indonesia’s Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency as ‘a crime against humanity‘, and with good reason. In the past decade, the year 2006 had witnessed the worst case of forest fire in Indonesia. Until this year. 2015 now has the dubious honor of being the worst case of forest fires in Indonesia in the past decade, releasing almost 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. The dry conditions caused by this year’s El Nino weather phenomenon, as well as increase in number of forest fires, has exacerbated the situation. The worst case of forest fires in Indonesia’s recorded history occurred in 1997, at almost 4.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Indonesia

Following the 1997 fires, an estimated 20 million people in Indonesia suffered from respiratory problems, with 19,800-48,100 premature mortalities (Heil, 2007). In severely affected areas, more than 90% of people had respiratory symptoms and elderly individuals suffered a serious deterioration in overall health. (Kunii et al, 2002)

According to the Board for the Control of Environment Impacts in Palangkaraya, during the 2006 forest fires, in Palangka Raya, Central Kalimantan, air quality was rated as ‘unhealthy, very unhealthy or dangerous’ on 81% of days from September-November 2006. In October 2006, 30 of 31 days were ‘dangerous’ representing a clear health threat. Additionally, thick smoke impairs visibility, causing an increase in traffic accidents, and a general lack of public health service and the high cost of health insurance means that treatment is not typically received for smoke-related ailments.

Over 500,000 cases of acute respiratory infections have been reported in Riau, Jambi, Sumatra and Kalimantan from July to Oct 2015. Pollution Standard Index (PSI) levels in Central Kalimantan nudged 2,000 near the end of September (anything over PSI 300 is considered hazardous).

In Singapore

According to the National Environment Agency, the highest Pollution Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) reading on record in Singapore is 401 (hazardous) in July 2013. Findings from the health impact surveillance during the 1997 haze period showed that there was a 30% increase in attendances for haze-related conditions. There were increases of 12% of upper respiratory tract illness, 19% asthma, and 26% rhinitis (Ministry of Health Statistics). During the same period there was also an increase in accident and emergency attendances for haze-related complaints. There was no significant increase in hospital admissions or in mortality.

Effects on Pet Health

Haze-related symptoms for pets include respiratory problems, asthma, breathing difficulties, teary eyes and coughing. Very old and very young pets, as well as those with shorter snouts, may be more susceptible to haze-related diseases.

SPCA Singapore recommends

– keep your pets indoors as much as possible, and if your rabbits / small pets typically are kept at the balcony, bring them in (as the smaller animals are at greater risk of smoke inhalation, due to their smaller lung capacities);
– adjust your pet dog’s exercise levels accordingly. Play with your dogs indoors, using games that stimulate their minds (e.g. hide-and-seek, pet-food puzzle toys, learning a trick) so they can work off their energy without undergoing over-exposure to the haze outdoors. Do not take your dogs out for walks, if the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading crosses the 200 mark;
– turn on the air-conditioner or fan (at least), and replace the water in the water bowls more frequently, to provide a more conducive home environment for your pets;
– look out for any signs of breathing difficulty, teary eyes and/or nasal discharge, and take your pet(s) to the vet immediately!

Whilst certain pet owners might look to better protect their pets by having them wear makeshift masks, our vets advise strongly against doing so. In fact, it would be dangerous for the pets with the masks obscuring their mouths, not allowing them to dispel heat (which might, in turn, lead to heatstroke).

Effects on the Economy

Estimates of the cost of uncontrolled fires to the Indonesian economy differ, but sources estimate the lost amount to US$6 billion to U$9 billion. Haze from the fires can extend to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, shrouding them in smoke and affecting transport and economic activities for millions more people, resulting in billions more dollars of economic losses. Clearly, the economic losses associated with uncontrolled fires are contributing to poverty and restraining development in the region.

Thanks to laws passed last year by the Singapore Government which allows for criminal and civil action against errant firms, a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as activists on social media have been calling for boycotts of paper companies whose products are sourced from the areas in Indonesia where forest fires are raging. The identification by National Environment Agency (NEA) of such errant firms helped the public direct their ire, using consumer power in the form of boycotts to express their frustration.

Effects on the Environment

Peat burning and consequent subsidence – Dry peat smolders for long periods and burns down to the water table. When this happens, tree roots are exposed and both the peat and forest vegetation become unstable, resulting in peat subsidence, massive tree falls and the consequent loss of large areas of forest.

Effects on flora – PSF trees are not adapted to fire (most have very thin
bark), so tree mortality post-fire is high. Although fires are generally low intensity, their slow spread rate means fire is in contact with trees for long periods, heating up the bark. Fire can kill 23-44% of trees with >10cm DBH (diameter at breast height) and 95% of stems with >1cm DBH (Harrison et al, 2008). They alter species composition in the area with little regeneration even 15 years after burning (Cochrane et al, 1999). Tree mortality in severely burnt areas of PSF is virtually 100%, as most trees fall once the supporting peat is burnt away (Figure 2b).

Effects on fauna – Animals dependent on intact PSF will clearly be impacted directly by fire. Loss of habitat due to forest fires is one of the primary reasons of decreasing orangutan population. More information on the plight of the orangutans can be found in this link.

Indirect effects are also likely. For example, gibbons sing less frequently in smoky conditions, which could interfere with territorial spacing and ultimately, reproduction (Chayne, 2007).

Peatland as a carbon bomb – Peatland can store up to 60 billion tonnes of carbon, which makes it a virtual carbon bomb if even some of it is burned and released into the air–precisely what the Indonesian farmers are doing. The World Resources Institute reported that since early September 2015, carbon emissions from Indonesia’s fires alone have exceeded that of the average United States (US) daily output on 26 out of 44 days, despite the US being 5.29 times as big as Indonesia.

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 11.11.02 PM

Map of Indonesia (Blue) overlaid on US (Red). Credit: MapFight

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