Nothing to see here: Southeast Asia dismiss haze death study

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 8:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 September, 2016, 10:40pm

Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean authorities have dismissed research that smoky haze from catastrophic forest fires in Indonesia last year caused 100,000 deaths.

Some even contend the haze caused no serious health problems, but experts said those assertions contradict well-established science.

Last year’s fires in Sumatra and the Indonesian part of Borneo were the worst since 1997, burning about 261,000 hectares of forests and peatland and sending haze across the region for weeks. Many were deliberately set by companies to clear land for palm oil and pulpwood plantations.

The study in the journal Environmental Research Letters by Harvard and Columbia researchers estimated the amount of health-threatening fine particles, often referred to as PM2.5, released by the fires that burned from July to October and tracked their spread across Southeast Asia using satellite observations.

In Indonesia, a spokesman for the country’s disaster mitigation agency said the research “could be baseless or they have the wrong information”. Indonesia officially counted 24 deaths from the haze including people killed fighting the fires.

Singapore’s Ministry of Health said short term exposure to haze will generally not cause serious health problems. The study was “not reflective of the actual situation”, it said, and the overall death rate hadn’t changed last year.

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In Malaysia, Health Minister Subramaniam Sathasivam said officials are still studying the research, which is “computer generated, not based on hard data”.

“People have died but to what extent the haze contributed to it, it’s hard to say,” he said. “If an 80-year-old fellow with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problem and exposure to haze died, what did he die of? This is hell of a difficult question to answer.”

Indonesian clerics issue fatwa against forest fires in bid to stop annual haze

The dry season fires are an annual irritant in Indonesia’s relations with Singapore and MalaysiaBut Indonesia has since stepped up efforts to prosecute companies and individuals who set fires and has strengthened its fire-fighting response.