Wildfires increase Brazilians’ chance of developing respiratory diseases by 23%
Pollution’s impact on the environment is of great concern in many countries around the world. In addition to its ecological, economic and social consequences, pollution is also a major health risk, as borne out in a research project by Fundação Getulio Vargas’ School of Public Policy and Government (FGV EPPG). The study was part of a larger project analyzing the interrelationship between air pollution, climate and health.
The study, called “Health impacts of wildfire-related air pollution in Brazil: a nationwide study of more than 2 million hospital admissions between 2008 and 2018,” was published in the journal Nature Communications. Among other findings, the researchers estimated that wildfires were associated with a 23% increase in hospitalizations in Brazil in relation to respiratory diseases, such as bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma.
In addition, wildfires were linked to a 21% increase in circulatory diseases such as arterial disease, strokes and heart disease.
The study also points out that this association is even greater in Brazil’s North region, where much of the Amazon Rainforest is located. Between 2008 and 2018, the northern states recorded a 38% increase in hospitalizations for respiratory diseases and a 27% increase for circulatory diseases. In all, more than 2 million hospitalizations across the country in this period were analyzed.
According to researcher Weeberb Réquia, the leader of this study and the entire project on pollution, climate and health, the North is undoubtedly a region where pollution’s impact on health is critical. Due to its indicators in relation to the rest of the country, he believes there is an urgent need to look at the North with greater concern.
To see the full study, click here.
“It’s important to bear in mind that when a human being breathes in a pollutant in the air, this compound can behave in different ways, which will vary according to the conditions of the organism that has come into contact with that substance. These pollutants can interact in different ways with the human body and have different effects. The effects of exposure to air pollutants can be more serious in people with preexisting health conditions or in specific risk groups. For example, individuals with respiratory disorders such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may experience aggravated symptoms or acute crises due to exposure to these pollutants,” Réquia says.
Accordingly, the study identified potential high-risk groups, because although pollution caused by fires affects all human beings, it hits children up to the age of five and the elderly over the age of 64 the hardest.
“In our research, we created a filter based on the age of all the people who had been hospitalized due to cardiorespiratory diseases, and we saw how vulnerable children and the elderly are. Up to the age of 10, children’s nervous, respiratory and circulatory systems are still being formed, and like any developing system, they are very fragile to external influences in the environment, which can trigger illnesses,” he explains.
On the other hand, Réquia says that senior citizens are also vulnerable to the effects of fires, because while children’s bodies are still forming, those of the elderly may be more debilitated.
“The elderly may have a reduced capacity to deal with the oxidative stress caused by pollutants, making them more susceptible to cell damage and systemic inflammation. We estimated their vulnerability using a tool called the odds ratio. Based on this measure, it is possible to estimate the percentage increase in the chance of hospitalization due to exposure to fires,” he says.
Database and public policies
To arrive at these results, the researcher explains that he used satellite monitoring data, which was then compared to health data. “We used data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which maps fire outbreaks in Brazil on a daily basis, as well as data on hospital admissions from the public health system’s information technology department, DATASUS.”
Réquia also emphasizes the importance of technological tools that can highlight health knowledge. “Nowadays, we live in the Data Age and we can increasingly see that the market is absorbing this reality. Those who have data are better placed to act. What’s more, the volume of information is not the same as it used to be. Now we have a very large amount and that’s why there are tools like big data, to better analyze the potential of the evidence found in the data,” the researcher says.
He adds that the public authorities have also understood the importance of this factor, since nowadays, for a public manager to make decisions and create public policies, it is necessary to base them on evidence, which generally comes from scientific research. However, Réquia points out that not all information will be available at the exact place and time researchers need it.
“Often a database doesn’t have the information a researcher wants about a particular time or occurrence, so the scientific community has identified other ways of filling in these gaps in temporal and spatial information. One of the solutions is to use satellite monitoring data, since it monitors constantly and its frequency is unlikely to fail,” he says.
He adds that satellite data monitors numerous factors in Brazil. “This data can be used to study aspects involving health and the environment, as we did in this research, and also many other areas, such as security, transportation and the economy. These findings can serve as a basis for creating public policies and thus contribute to socioeconomic development in our country and around the world,” the researcher concludes.
Center for Environmental and Public Health Studies (FGVcemasp)
So far, the research project to study the relationship between pollution and health has published around 20 studies, addressing not only wildfires and air pollution, but also the context of climate variations. Funded by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), this project began in 2020 and it is due to end in 2023.
The project’s other studies include one that investigated the impact of pollution on the health of newborn babies. The data indicated an increase of approximately 31% in the chance of a baby being born prematurely in Brazil’s Southeast region if the mother had been exposed to wildfires. Another study, published in The Lancet, found that an increase of 100 fires was associated with an 18.55% greater chance of a child being born underweight in the country’s South region.
All these studies have given rise to the Center for Environmental and Public Health Studies (FGVcemasp). FGV EPPG’s newest research center aims to evaluate environmental factors that affect human health, in order to produce scientific evidence to support the creation of environmental and health policies.
To find out more about this project and the new Center for Environmental and Public Health Studies (FGVcemasp), click here.