Science

More Than 47,000 Brazilians Hospitalized Every Year From Exposure to Wildfire Air Pollution


Largest and most comprehensive study to date of the health effects of wildfires in Brazil reveals the serious health consequences of this burning, linking exposure to wildfire pollutants to increased hospitalization.

Last year the number of wildfires in Brazil increased 12.7 percent to a decade-high. Now the largest and most comprehensive study to date of the health effects of wildfires in Brazil reveals the serious health consequences of this burning, linking exposure to wildfire pollutants to increased hospitalization.

There have been 260 major fires detected in the Amazon this year, burning more than 105,000 hectares (260,000 acres) — an area roughly the size of Los Angeles, California.

More than 75 percent of these fires blazed in the Brazilian Amazon, in areas where trees have been cut to make way for agriculture, despite a June 27 ban on unauthorized outdoor fires by the Brazilian government.

Professor Yuming Guo and Dr. Shanshan Li, from the Monash University School of Public and Preventive Health in Melbourne, Australia, led an international study into the health effects of these wildfires. The results are published today in The Lancet Planetary Health.

Yuming Guo

Lead author, Professor Yuming Guo. Credit: Monash University

The study found between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2015, a 10 ug/m3 increase in wildfire-related fine particles (PM2.5) in the air was associated with an increase in overall hospitalizations of 0.53 per cent directly related to exposure to wildfire pollutants. This corresponds to 35 cases per 100,000 residents annually, which is over 48,000 Brazilians every year hospitalized by wildfire pollution, mainly in the cities in the north, south, and central-west regions. The north east regions of the country had the lowest rates.

The study found that overall hospitalizations were “particularly high in children aged four years or younger, in children aged five to nine years and in people aged 80 years and older.”

The study looked at more than 143 million hospitalizations from 1814 municipalities covering almost 80 percent of the Brazilian population for the 16 years of the study to the end of 2015, comparing this data to daily wildfire related PM2.5 levels in the air in each of these municipalities. Even short-term exposure to PM2.5, the small particulate matter within wildfire smoke, can trigger asthma, heart attack, stroke, a decrease in lung function, hospitalization, and premature death.

“This data reveals significant health impacts of wildfires, at a time before the 2019 fires across Brazil captured global attention followed by an equally intense fire period last year,” Professor Guo said.

There have been increased fires across Brazil since the 1990s, largely due to deforestation and forest degradation from human activities such as mining, logging and farming. While fire activities generally occur during the dry season in August to November, the duration of the dry season is lengthening, according to previous studies.

While most wildfires occur in remote areas of Brazil, “toxic smoke from these wildfires in the Amazon region can rise as high as 2000 to 2500 km up into the atmosphere and travel great distances, threatening people thousands of miles away,” Professor Guo said.

Number of hospital admissions associated with wildfire-related PM2·5 across 1814 Brazilian municipalities by region, sex, and age, 2000–15.

Attributable case during 2000-2015
National 766,091
Cause specific  
Respiratory 302437
Cardiovascular 55,170
Region  
North 26,848
Northeast 50,326
South 215,142
Southeast 321,455
Central West 122,809
Sex  
Female 432,806
Male 331,961
Age (years)  
0-4 254,044
5-9 411,24
10-19 77,380
20-29 83,794
30-39 47,930
40-49 45,843
50-59 52,097
60-69 46,786
70-79 64,906
= 80 79,630

Reference: “Risk and burden of hospital admissions associated with wildfire-related PM2·5 in Brazil, 2000–15: a nationwide time-series study” 8 September 2021, The Lancet Planetary Health.
DOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00173-X





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