Study finds that fires increase chance of premature births in southeast Brazil by up to 31%
Much has been said about the impacts that climate change will have in future, but it is already possible to observe some of these effects by looking at the health of babies today. This is borne out by a study carried out at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ School of Public Policy and Government (FGV EPPG), which identified a higher chance of babies being born prematurely, with congenital malformations or underweight, if the mother had been exposed to smoke from the controlled burning of fields, temperature variations and/or air pollution during the first three months of pregnancy.
An extra 100 fires in a region were associated with an 18.55% higher chance of a child being born underweight in Brazil’s South region, considering mothers potentially exposed to smoke from these fires during the first trimester of pregnancy. This study, which also identified an increase of approximately 1% in the Midwest region, was published in The Lancet.
Regarding premature births, the biggest impact from exposure to the burning of fields was recorded in Brazil’s Southeast region. The study found a 31% higher chance of a baby being born prematurely if the mother had been exposed to smoke from this phenomenon in the first three months of pregnancy. In the North region, the chance of a child being born prematurely due to fires was 5% higher.
Finally, considering 12 categories of congenital malformation that were analyzed in another study, the biggest increases linked to fires were related to the respiratory system (1.3%), palate and nose (0.7%), and nervous system (0.2%). The most impacted regions were the North, South and Midwest.
Impact of temperature variations
Researcher Weeberb Réquia, who coordinated the study, explains that these same factors, “low weight, premature birth and congenital malformation,” were also researched in association with temperature variations. According to him, these three factors are some of the indicators used by the medical community to categorize a healthy birth. In addition, he points out that the first three months of pregnancy are fundamental to the health of a baby, as it is the crucial moment of its formation.
“Using the same methodology, we identified that the effect of weather on the birth of low-birthweight children was only relevant in the North region, specifically in the Amazon region. An increase in temperature of 1 degree Celsius was linked to a 5.16% chance of more than one child being born underweight,” he says.
He adds that this effect was cumulative, meaning with every extra degree Celsius of temperature, the chance of more than one child being born underweight went up another 5%. “In studies in the field of environmental epidemiology, we generally consider an association between environmental exposure and health as a function of a given increase in exposure, to drive risk relevance and future decision making,” Réquia says.
The professor reveals that other studies into weather variations’ impacts on premature births and congenital malformations are now under way. After they have been completed, he will go on to investigate the impact of air pollution on these three factors (low birth weight, early birth and congenital anomalies).
Cross-checking of data
To obtain these results, the researcher used satellite monitoring data related to health data. In the study on fires, he used data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which maps outbreaks of fires in Brazil every day, as well as data on births from the public health system’s information technology department, DataSUS.
To study weather variations, in addition to data from DataSUS, he used remote sensing climate data made available to the public by NASA. “Society is now living in the Data Age and we can increasingly see that markets are absorbing this reality. Organizations with the best data are best placed to act. The amount of information has also grown a lot. That is why there are tools like big data, to better analyze potential evidence contained in the data,” Réquia says.
He says that the public authorities understand the importance of this factor. Nowadays, for public managers to make decisions and create public policies, they must do so based on evidence, which generally comes from scientific research. However, Réquia notes that not all information is available at the exact time and place that researchers need it.
“Many times, a database does not have the information that researchers are looking for, about a certain time or occurrence, so the scientific community has identified other ways of filling these gaps in temporal and spatial information. One of the solutions is to use satellite monitoring data, which is obtained constantly,” he says.
He explains that satellite data monitors numerous factors in Brazil. “This data can be used to study aspects of health and the environment, as we have done in our research, and also to examine different areas, such as security, transport and the economy. These findings can serve as a basis for creating public policies, thereby contributing to socioeconomic development, in our country and across the world,” he says, adding that he expects to finalize his ongoing studies by the end of this year.