The next generation will endure the health effects of Indonesia’s wildfires

Burnt oil palm plantation in Buruk Bakul village, Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Amzar

More than 35,000 wildfires in Indonesia this year sent authorities scrambling to bring the situation under control. But as the region moves forward, the effects of the fires may have taken a permanent toll on local youth.

By Oliver Ward

Last month, wildfires in Sumatra and Kalimantan sent a noxious cloud of smoke billowing across the ASEAN region, prompting the closure of schools and airports. In mid-September, more than 100 flights were grounded and parts of Indonesia were blanketed in an apocalyptic red haze.

Recent rains have quenched the fires and lifted the haze, temporarily easing the pressure on ASEAN’s governments to hold companies to account and push for further commitments to sustainability. But as the haze dissipates, it leaves behind irreversible damage in the bodies of Indonesia’s children.

Burning peatland produces a cocktail of toxic compounds and carcinogens

The burning of wood and vegetation in the Bornean and Sumatran peatlands released a plume of ash, carbon monoxide, cyanide and formaldehyde into the atmosphere, where it was swept across the Strait of Malacca to Singapore, Malaysia, and Southern Thailand.

Many of these particles measured less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, around five times smaller than a dust particle. These tiny fragments can easily enter the human body through the respiratory system and become lodged in the lungs, causing respiratory problems. From the lungs, they can enter the bloodstream, with catastrophic health effects.

Air quality is often measured by the concentration of atmospheric particulate matter that with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) per cubic metre. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends keeping PM2.5 readings below 20. In recent weeks, readings in Sumatra have topped 400.

Children and infants are the worst affected

Previous studies on the impacts of wildfires on children have found that exposure to toxic haze and smog causes lasting damage and impacts their development. Researchers believe that the 1997 wildfires, among the worst in recent Indonesian history, contributed to around 15,600 child, infant and foetal deaths.

A sizeable portion of the deaths was attributed to the impact of contamination on prenatal health. Once inhaled, toxic compounds disrupt the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the foetus, leading to an increase of around 1.2% in child mortality before the age of three.

Mario C. Lo Bue, a research associate at the United Nations University, also examined the health impacts of the 1997 wildfires on infants. Her research indicated that children aged between one and three in 1997 who had been exposed to haze caused by wildfires, developed at a slower rate than their counterparts living in unaffected areas. In the three months following the fires, they grew at a rate 10% slower than their peers.

In all cases, children in poorer communities, with limited access to high-quality healthcare, were worst affected.

Children exposed to toxicants may never fully recover

Alarmingly, there is also significant evidence to suggest that children exposed to wildfire haze and high levels of PM2.5 matter suffer permanent physiological damage.

A study from Stamford University that followed the 2015 wildfires in California analysed the blood of 36 children who had been exposed to the smoke and toxicants. They found that exposure to the particles had caused genetic alterations in the children’s immune systems. Those affected were less capable of producing T regulatory cells, required to fend off infection and allergies.

The findings were consistent with those in another ongoing study from the University of California, in which researchers are examining the long-term impacts of wildfires on baby monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. The three to four-month-old rhesus monkeys were exposed to 10 days of PM2.5 levels higher than 65 micrometres per cubic metre, with a maximum PM2.5 level of 78 (levels are far lower than those detected in Sumatra and Borneo in recent weeks, which topped 420 in some places).

Three years later, the young monkeys still consistently produced less immune-related proteins, required to fight pathogens, than those unaffected by the fires.

Once the monkeys reached the age of ten, researchers found they had reduced lung function than their healthy peers. The female monkeys had also passed on the same genetic immune system alterations to their offspring.

While the studies may not be directly transferrable, monkeys, for example, spend far more of their lives outdoors than humans, they carry an important message.

Millions across the region have been exposed to dangerously high levels of PM2.5. Every time citizens have stepped outside their homes; they have been swimming through a soup of carcinogens and toxicants. Uncovering the health implications of the wildfires on the next generation of Indonesians should be a national priority, even if taking steps to prevent wildfires is not.