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High mortality linked to wildfires

28th February 2012

Researchers in Tasmania say that the death rate among people who inhale smoke from non-domestic sources like forest fires is higher than previously thought.

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They are warning that global casualties will rise amid global rises in temperature as a result of global warming.

Smoke inhalation from landscape fires in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounted for the largest number of deaths, researchers told a major science conference.

The majority of the 339,000 deaths caused by non-domestic smoke inhalation recorded each year between 1997 and 2006 came from these two regions.

Researchers were surprised at the figures, especially as smoke exposure is not usually a continuous factor in a person's life.

The study, lead by Fay Johnston of the University of Tasmania, used data on mortality rates, fire emissions, population density and weather patterns to draw its conclusions, which were published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Johnston presented the team's findings to the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Vancouver, Canada, which included an assessment of how the small particles in wildfire smoke affect human health.

Included in the scope of the study were fires from agricultural burning, grass fire, peat fire, and tropical deforestation. The research also drew upon a wide range of data from global datasets and satellites.

Guido van der Werf, earth scientist at Amsterdam's VU University, said scientists had known for a long time that the gases and particulate matter emitted by fires caused health problems.

But nobody had been able to quantify the effects linked to landscape fires until now, he said.

Van der Werf said Johnston's predictions for mortality figures from landscape fires did not even include the impact of other gases produced by fires like nitrogen and ozone, which suggested that the results had underestimated the number of deaths likely.

According to the study, more wildfires could result if global temperatures continue to rise, causing health problems for even more people. Moreover, fires emit gases that contribute to climate change.

Reducing the number of landscape fires would save human lives, as well as preserving biodiversity, Johnston said.

Most tropical fires are set by people in the first place, particularly in locations where humans use burning as a way of clearing forests for agriculture and savannah fires play an important role in the recycling of nutrients in the soil and in keeping back trees, van der Werf said.

University of York researcher Dieter Schwela said the research was significant, because it drew attention to a scarcely recognised problem and showed that far more efforts were needed to reduce exposure to landscape fire smoke.

In Africa, there were currently no policy-level initiatives to address the issue, which could include curbs on the burning of agricultural residues after harvest in sub-Saharan Africa and the burning of forests in southeast Asia, he added.

He called for more research on the actual exposure of the human population at a regional and local level.


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