US researchers report 100,000 haze-related deaths due to fires in Indonesia

A study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia University shows the damages caused by last year’s haze emergency in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. The study presents data on excess adult mortality caused by PM 2.5. Indonesia’s Environment Ministry has not yet commented. Malaysia has rejected the finding. “We didn’t find any increase in the number of acute respiratory ailments”.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A haze outbreak in South-east Asia last year may have caused over 100,000 premature deaths, this according to a new study conducted by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities that was released on Monday.

The new study, to be published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, combined satellite data with models of health impacts from smoke exposure and readings from pollution monitoring stations. it estimates there were 91,600 deaths in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore.

From September to November 2015, haze caused by illegal fires in many parts of Indonesia badly affected the population. Transport was interrupted, schools were closed and in some provinces the pollution level was 10 times higher than the limit.

Large swathes of forest were burnt to make way for palm oil trees. According to Health Ministry data, 27 million people were affected and at least 425,700 have had respiratory problems due to the haze.

Compounded by the effects of El Niño weather system, last year’s disaster was the worst since 1997. Fires generated 600 million tonnes of greenhouse gas (equivalent to Germany’s entire annual output).

Indonesian authorities acknowledged only 19 deaths from pollution damage. Indonesia's Environment Ministry has not responded to the new study. In recent months the government has adopted measures to prevent a recurrence of such an emergency.

The figures cited by Harvard and Columbia researchers could however prove worse. The study, in fact, only examined the impact of (particulate matter) PM 2.5 on adults. No data are available about its impact on children or about other particles.

Malaysian authorities have rejected the findings, reporting no haze-related deaths. “We didn’t find any increase in the number of acute respiratory ailments from the haze,” said Deputy Health director-general Datuk Dr S. Jeyain­dran.