Fires in Brazilian Amazon cause extensive health damage, report says

Fires resulting from unchecked deforestation are poisoning air millions of people breathe, affecting health throughout the Brazilian Amazon, a report said on Wednesday.

Fires and deforestation in the Amazon have increased dramatically since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, according to the report by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), the Institute for Health Policy Studies (IEPS) and Human Rights Watch.

Deforestation went up 85 per cent in Bolsonaro’s first year in power, the report said.

The president’s critics accuse him of not trying to stop fires in Brazil’s share of the Amazon rainforest, which extends over several South American countries and plays a key role in the fight against global warming.

Nearly 2,200 hospitalisations due to respiratory illness were attributable to deforestation-related fires in 2019, while millions of people were exposed to harmful levels of air pollution, according to the report.

People in the Amazon deliberately set fires after cutting down trees, often illegally, to clear lands for agriculture, cattle grazing or land speculation, the report said.

The smoke is rich in fine particulate matter, a pollutant linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as premature death.

The study found that in August 2019, nearly three million people in 90 Amazon region municipalities were exposed to harmful air pollution levels over the World Health Organisation’s recommended threshold.

The number increased to 4.5 million people in 168 municipalities in September.

Medical facilities already struggling with the coronavirus pandemic will face further stress caring for people affected by fires, the report warned.

“Until Brazil effectively curbs deforestation, the fires can be expected to continue every year,’’ said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil Director at Human Rights Watch.