Oct 29, 2015

Regional haze from Indonesian forest fires seen as an acid test for ASEAN

Is the haze from Indonesia’s forest fires hazardous to health?

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“I would say, extremely hazardous for your health,” Martin Wooster, professor of Earth Observation Science at King’s College London and National Centre for Earth Observation, was quoted as saying in an online article by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Wooster was among a number of scientists who have visited Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, Indonesia, to measure the effects of the fires that have been ravaging vast tracts of forest and peatland in this province and the neighboring island of Sumatra.

Al Jazeera has reported that the haze “has had a devastating impact on people’s health in Indonesia, and more than 140,000 people have reported respiratory infections in smog-choked areas.”

The CIFOR article enumerates the hazardous elements present in the acrid smoke produced by these forest fires: “ozone, carbon monoxide, cyanide, ammonia and formaldehyde,” which can cause “headaches, dizziness, fatigue bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia and cardiovascular disease.” While air pollution from such fires have been a recurring problem for Indonesia, the magnitude of the devastation this year is said to be the worst on record, with the resulting air pollution affecting not only Indonesia and its nearest neighbors Malaysia and Singapore, but also Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand and Cambodia.

In the last couple of weeks, the haze has reached the Philippines, too. Ten airports in Mindanao have seen flights canceled as dense smoke reduced visibility and movement in cities such as Davao, Zamboanga, Iligan, General Santos and Sarangani. The smoke is creeping upward; Cebu and Negros in central Visayas, like Mindanao more than 1,200 miles from the nearest fires, have also seen disrupted air traffic. The blanket of smoke has been so vast that it’s reported to be spreading even to Papua New Guinea. Indonesia appears helpless to fight the fires on its own; it has asked the help of Australia, Russia, Singapore and Malaysia for equipment and know-how, and it has also announced that it is preparing at least six warships and two state-owned ferries to evacuate children and residents from its worst-hit provinces.

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