09:19pm Thursday 12 December 2019

Fire-smoke important contributor to deaths worldwide

forest fire

Chief Investigator on the paper, Dr Fay Johnston, a research fellow from Menzies Research Institute Tasmania, an institute of UTAS, said that the Sub-Saharan Africa (157,000) and Southeast Asia (110,000) were the hardest hit by fire-smoke deaths, with an estimated annual average of 157,000 and 110,000 deaths, respectively, attributable to landscape fire smoke exposure.

“Results also showed that deaths related to landscape fire smoke more than doubled during El Niňo years compared with La Niňa years,” Dr Johnston said.

“Landscape fire smoke comprises emissions for forest, grass and agricultural fires. These emissions affect both climate and air quality.

“Most emissions originate from fires set in tropical rainforests (for clearance purposes) and savannas where they cause recurrent episodes of severe pollution that affect some of the poorest regions of the world.

“Fires are becoming more widespread and frequent in some regions, and this source of air pollution is likely to continue to grow in magnitude and cause consequent health impacts.

“Poor health outcomes associated with fire smoke, for example, could be considerably reduced by restricting the deliberate burning of tropical rainforests, which rarely burn naturally.

“It’s time to look at deforestation impacts on fires, which in turn affect human health.

“These are avoidable deaths. There’s an opportunity here for us to save lives,” she said.

Co-author on the paper, Professor David Bowman from the UTAS School of Plant Science, said that reducing population level exposure to air pollution from landscape fires is a worthwhile endeavour that is likely to have immediate and measureable health benefits.

“Interventions in reducing smoke emissions from landscape fires could also potentially provide benefits for the slowing of global warming and slowing the loss of biodiversity,” Professor Bowman said.

“Furthermore, the large influence of El Niňo on deaths attributed to landscape fire smoke implies that the burden may change in the future if climate change modifies the El Niňo Southern Oscillation or drier conditions occur in places with adequate fuels and ignition sources.

“This highlights a risk to populations residing in flammable landscapes should severe fire activity abruptly increase due to climate change,” Professor Bowman said.

This work was an international collaboration between the University of Tasmania’s Menzies Research Institute Tasmania and School of Plant Science, British Columbia Centre for Disease Control, Canada, Columbia University and the University of California.

Funding for the research was provided by the Australian Research Council, University of Tasmania and NASA.

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