Fires resulting from unchecked deforestation are poisoning the air millions of people breathe, affecting health throughout the Brazilian Amazon, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), the Institute for Health Policy Studies(IEPS), and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Fires and deforestation in the Amazon increased dramatically during 2019, President Jair Bolsonaro’s first year in office, and 2020 is already proving to be worse, the groups found.
As the Amazon burns, the smoke poisons its people.
Brazil has laws that are meant to protect the rainforest, but since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, enforcement of those laws has been negligible.
And destruction of the Amazon rainforest has surged to levels unseen in a decade.
During his first year government data reveals an increase of 85% in forest loss.
Fires in the Amazon’s verdant rainforests are not a natural phenomenon.
Deforestation is followed by fires deliberately set by people looking to clear the land for agriculture, cattle-grazing and real estate speculation, among others.
Colonel Paulo Barroso
Executive Secretary of Mato Grosso state’s Fire Committee
“Experiencing fires here in the Amazon region is something you can’t forget. You feel the air is dense. The impact is general: it's fauna, flora, it's human. Everyone suffers.”
In the last 35 years more than half a million square kilometres of rainforest have been razed, most of it illegally. A Human Rights Watch investigation uncovered how the state is letting criminal mafias get away with destroying the rainforest. And the repercussions have been disastrous.
In 2019, more than 5,500 square kilometres were burned. By April 2020, there were already a total of 4,500 square kilometres of deforested land that could be burned during this dry season. And despite the government claiming they were now clamping down, the razing and fires continue.
The smoke from burning forests contains a mixture of toxic pollutants, including fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5, which can penetrate the lung barrier and enter the bloodstream.
Our research estimated 2,195 hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses in 2019 were associated with exposure to these toxic pollutants from the fires. These included more than a thousand patients aged 60 or above, and almost 500 infants under one.
Doctors fear the patients they see are just a tiny fraction of those falling seriously ill from the fires.
Indigenous people in Brazil are particularly affected by the fires and often live far from medical care.
Lawyer, Araribóia Indigenous Territory
“we need to start thinking a little more powerfully about how these processes that affect the Amazon reflect on the lives of the inhabitants."
Covid-19 makes the situation even more dangerous. Brazil’s health system is already struggling to cope with the Covid19 pandemic and doctors say the fire season will endanger even more people .
Dr. Hermano Albuquerque de Castro
Director of Brazil's National School of Public Health (ENSP)
“If a person is affected by the fire’s smoke and it affects his or her respiratory illness, this person is forced to go to a hospital, which is already strangled. You put at risk people who have a simple case of bronchitis. A lot of people, who didn't have Covid-19, go to the hospitals and get infected."
These devastating effects can be prevented. Authorities should stop the deforestation and fires that are at the source of the toxic haze. And they need to take action now to protect the rainforest and to enforce safe air quality standards to protect the lives and health of millions in the Amazon region.