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Forest Fire Smoke Driving Increased Health Risks From Air Pollution Worldwide – Report


Worldwide, Public Health Systems Must be Prepared for
Health Impacts of Fires Related to Climate
Crisis

Canberra, London, Brasilia, Ottawa,
16/17 June 2021:-
Bigger, more frequent forest and bush
fires are having increased and not yet well-studied health
impacts on people – including through longer and more
frequent exposure to fire smoke by larger populations in
distant cities – according to a report released today by the
Global Climate and Health Alliance [1]. 

The
report, The
Limits of Livability – The emerging threat of smoke impacts
on health from forest fires and climate change
, with
case studies from Australia, Brazil and Canada, warns that
worldwide, governments must act to prepare public health
systems for the impacts to the public from recurring air
pollution episodes from fires caused by the climate crisis,
deforestation practices, and poor land
management.

“With climate warming driving increased
wildfires around the world, what we’re seeing is that even
after the last flames have been quenched and the TV cameras
have departed, more and more people are at risk from the
long-term consequences of forest and bush fires”, said
Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and
Health Alliance. 
 

“Governments whose
citizens are becoming increasingly exposed to severe health
risks from air pollution from forest fire and bushfire
smoke, not just in Australia, Brazil and Canada, but around
the world, must prepare both their communities and health
systems in order to to protect the most vulnerable,
including those with respiratory conditions, children, and
the elderly, who are disproportionately impacted from air
pollution”, she continued.

“Australia, Brazil and
Canada all had major fires in the last few years that
captured global attention; however, wildfires, as well as
fires deliberately started as part of deforestation, are
also happening in many other countries around the world,
including recent fires in Bolivia, Paraguay, Siberia, the
western United States, and Indonesia.”

“What The
Limits of Livability
report shows us is that climate
change, climate impacts and health are intertwined, and that
policymakers must put health concerns front and centre when
creating policies for dealing with climate change –
including their national commitments under the Paris
Agreement, the Nationally Determined Commitments
(NDCs).”

“The implementation of both systematic
monitoring and reduction of air pollution from forest fires
must go hand-in-hand with reducing the causes of forest
fires and an improved public health response. Ultimately
global leaders, including those in the countries
experiencing the worst forest and bush fires, must step up
and limit the warming of the planet through rapid climate
action”, concluded Miller.

“The devastating impact
of the recent forest fires in Australia, the Amazon and
Canada is not just down to the flames but also to the smoke
which persisted for weeks and months, resulting in events
that were outside of people’s lived experience”, said the
report’s lead author, Dr. Frances MacGuire, Consultant
with the Global Climate and Health Alliance.

“The
short term health effects of forest smoke are now well
documented but the long term effects of extended exposure
are unknown. It is clear that there are significant research
gaps in understanding the full health impacts of smoke from
increased wildfire risk in a warming world, and on primary
and secondary health services”, continued
MacGuire.

The report can be downloaded from the Global
Climate and Health Alliance website here:

https://climateandhealthalliance.org/the-limits-of-livability/

Limits
of Livability – The emerging threat of smoke impacts on
health from forest fires and climate change
also examines the specific impacts of fires
in three countries, Brazil, Australia and
Canada:

Brazil

In 2019, extensive
forest fires in the Amazon sparked international reaction
and widespread concern about the destruction of the
Earth’s largest and most biodiverse
rainforest. 

The 2020 fires were just
as bad; and May 2021 delivered the worst number of fires for
the month since 2007 in the Amazon and the Cerrado biomes,
with 3,815 hotspots, representing an increase of 65% over
2020 [2]. 

Forest fires in the Amazon are
largely deliberate, set intentionally as part of land
clearing for ranching and agriculture. They contribute to
climate change by damaging this globally important carbon
store and sink. In the Amazon basin, 10 million live in
areas of poor air quality. Exposure to forest fire smoke has
been linked to increased emergency room visits, with
symptoms including difficulty breathing, fever and chest
pain; and long term exposure has been linked to increased
vulnerability to the most serious effects of COVID-19. This
recurrent, long-term exposure to forest fire smoke could be
stopped immediately with a moratorium on deforestation and
fires for land clearing, along with strong supervision to
ensure implementation.

“All health professionals
should be trained to understand the damage caused by air
pollution, and the worsening health toll from climate
change. In Brazil, we cannot be passive about the
destruction from laws that harm nature and cause diseases
and death.”

Dr. Enrique Falceto de Barros,
Family Doctor, Chair WONCA Working Party on the
Environment

View
the Brazil country report here
(EN)
View
the Brazil country brief here
(BR
PT) 

 

Australia

In
2019-2020, Australia endured the worst wildfire season in
recorded history. These bushfires burned for 19 weeks, with
33 lives lost, over 2,000 homes destroyed, and an estimated
three billion animals killed or
misplaced. 

Air quality was ten times
hazardous levels in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, with 80%
of the population of Australia exposed to poor air quality.
The increasing severity of Australian bushfires has been
driven by climate change, along with land management
practices. Indigenous fire management approaches could
inform more effective approaches to managing the landscape,
while more research, monitoring, and disaster response
preparation are needed to better prepare and protect people
and health systems from increased fire threat. Australia
must also substantially strengthen its policies to mitigate
climate change, to address the significant role that global
warming plays in bushfires.

“Climate change
contributed to the worst bushfires in recorded history in
our country, and exposed millions of Australians to
hazardous air pollution for months. We must recognize that
climate change is a health emergency, and respond
accordingly. Australia’s climate policies are far from
aligned with the scientific evidence, and the health of
Australians is suffering. Prime Minister Scott Morrison must
recognize the urgency of the health and environmental
emergency, and commit to rapid, ambitious action on climate
change.” 

Fiona Armstrong, Founder and
Executive Director, Climate and Health
Alliance

Download
the Australia Country Report
here

Learning from Indigenous
communities in Australia

The knowledge and
skills that Indigenous communities hold could help develop
more sustainable approaches to forest management in a warmer
world. When fire is used in carefully controlled ways by
Indigenous communities, like the “cultural burns” used
in forested areas to suppress undergrowth and discourage big
fires, it encourages new plant growth and attracts wildlife
and bush food. The 2020 Royal Commission included key
recommendations about the use of cultural burns, namely the
sharing of knowledge and understanding about cultural burns
and further investigation into how cultural burning could be
used to improve forest and fire management in
Australia.
 

Canada

In Canada bigger,
more intense fires are driven by both climate change and
poor forest management.

Polar regions are projected
to warm faster due to climate change than areas towards the
equator. Located near the Arctic, Canada is warming faster
than many other parts of the world. Under the IPCC scenario
where greenhouse emissions continue at a mid-range, it is
projected that wildfires will increase in Canada by 75% by
2100.20 In the period 1980-2017, 448,444 Canadians were
evacuated due to wildfires. Half of these evacuations took
place in the last decade.

“In the summer of 2014, two
and a half months of wildfire smoke resulted in double the
number of asthma visits to the ER where I work. While I was
writing up our study, a hospital in Alberta had to evacuate
in a matter of hours due to an epic fire. Health authorities
need to revamp ventilation systems in hospitals to cope with
intense smoke and make sure evacuation plans are clear to
keep patients safe during the fires we must now adapt to.
And decision-makers must eliminate fossil fuel subsidies and
support emergent drops in greenhouse gas emissions to reduce
the intensity of the fires our children will
inherit.”

Dr. Courtney Howard, Emergency
Physician, Chief Drygeese Territory, Yellowknife, Canada,
former president of Canadian Association of Physicians for
the Environment and Global Climate and Health Alliance Board
Member.

View
the Canada Country Report
here 

Recommendations for
Health Services:

“We now have an opportunity
to include a systematic review of current research in the
IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, due in 2022, which would aid
in advising governments on this emerging climate and health
issue. Health services in vulnerable countries must plan for
longer and more intense fire and smoke events, including
heat and smoke proofing of new hospital buildings and
ensuring supply chain flexibility to match increased demand
for treatments such as asthma inhalers. Indigenous forest
management techniques provide an essential and important
part of the response to better forest management which
reduces fire risks while protecting human rights”, concluded
MacGuire.

The Limits of Livability – The
emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest fires
and climate change
highlights
that:

  • Under current greenhouse gas
    emissions scenarios, wildfires are projected to increase
    substantially across 74% of the world by 2100, and to set
    off a feedback loop in which wildfires drive forest loss
    which can release substantial greenhouse gas emissions,
    which in turn cause more wildfires in a reinforcing feedback
    loop. [p.10]
  • Deforestation and burning in the
    Amazon, combined with climate change-induced warming and
    drought, could drive the rainforest to a tipping point where
    it becomes savannah, destroying one of the world’s major
    carbon sinks and worsening climate change. [p.
    36]
  • Smoke from forest fires and bushfires travels
    significant distances, with smoke from the 2019-2020
    bushfires in Australia traveling 66,000km and smoke from
    fires in Alberta, Canada in 2019 traveling as far as Europe.
    [pp. 10-11]
  • Wildfire smoke can lead to significant
    spikes in air pollution, while longer burning fires can
    expose significant populations to increased air pollution
    over a long period of time. Annually recurring major fires
    increase exposure year on year. [pp. 13-14]
  • During
    the 2019-2020 bushfires in Australia, 80% of the Australian
    population was exposed to elevated levels of air pollution
    from the smoke. [p. 29]
  • The 2017 fires in Canada
    prompted a 10-week stage of emergency, yet public health
    guidance on wildfire response is premised on smoke exposures
    of three days to one week. [pp. 24-25]
  • Landscape
    fire smoke causes an estimated 339,000 premature deaths per
    year. Adverse health outcomes may also include premature
    births, low birthweight, and gestational diabetes; asthma
    exacerbations and other respiratory disease; and
    cardiovascular disease; and diabetes. [pp.
    15-17]
  • Long term exposure to forest fire smoke
    increased vulnerability to COVID-19, among the Indigenous
    population whose death rate from COVID-19 was 250% higher
    than that of the general population of Brazil. [p.
    37]
  • Indigenous fire management practices could
    improve wildfire management and disaster preparation. [pp.
    50-51]

The Limits of Livability –
The emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest
fires and climate change can be downloaded from:
https://climateandhealthalliance.org/the-limits-of-livability/

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