Days of Haze: How Palm Oil and Landscape Fires Affect Health in Southeast Asia

, analyst, Tropical Forest & Climate Initiative | March 4, 2015, 2:27 pm EDT
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On a recent trip to Singapore, after the day’s discussion about how best to stop deforestation in Southeast Asia had ceased and the jet-lag was just beginning to take a hold of me, I hopped into bed to fall asleep. Or probably more accurately, I collapsed into bed. I turned on the television and what I saw on the screen was surprising.

The jolt wasn’t because of a startling newscast or culture shock. It was because of the presence of a small information box on the top left side of the screen reading, “24H PSI 53-55”–letting all residents know the current air quality in Singapore.

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While watching television in Singapore, I noticed a 24 hour and three hour PSI or, Pollution Standards Index. The prominence of having it on the television served to highlight just how important (and changeable) air quality in the region is in the lives of residents. Photo: Lael K. Goodman

Days of haze

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the place the air quality index held in Singaporean everyday life. I’ve written before on the haze issue and I was finishing up a report, Clearing the Air: Palm Oil, Peat Destruction, and Air Pollution, on the effects of air pollution in Southeast Asia and its linkages to the palm oil industry. So I knew very well that haze frequently blankets areas in Southeast Asia, impeding daily life and causing health problems. These photos, taken in 2013 just three days apart, show just how thick the pollution can be.

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These photos, looking toward Marine Parade Road in Singapore, compare the haze conditions on June, 21, 2013, to the clear conditions on June 24, 2013. The June 2013 haze event was particularly acute, severely limiting visibility in the region. Photos: Wikimedia Commons/Wolcott

The haze is composed of chemicals and particulate matter that come from large fires burning in the region. Winds spread these pollutants across Southeast Asia, affecting areas far from the original fire location.

The fact is that these fires and their resulting haze occur every year. The fires used to be much less frequent and on a smaller scale, but their frequency and magnitude have increased as the landscape in Indonesia and Malaysia has shifted towards agriculture, of which oil palm plantations comprise a significant amount.  When forests are cleared and peatlands (carbon-rich swampy soils) are drained to clear land for oil palm plantations, the landscape becomes much more flammable.

In early 2014, an analysis traced 11 percent of recent fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, to oil palm plantations. During the haze episode in the summer of 2013, around 20 percent of fires were located on land designated for oil palm plantations. And this number likely underestimates the contribution of the palm oil industry because not all of the land planted with oil palm or cleared for these plantations is in a database that allows land to be traced to a specific crop.

Fire is often used as a cheap agricultural tool to prepare land for planting. However, the combination of ecosystem destruction, a dry season that will likely only get drier in the future because of climate change, and the use of fire is a recipe for disaster.

Dangers to human health

What photos can’t show are the very real impacts of haze on human health. I feel lucky that when I was there, the air quality fell within the moderate zone, meaning that all persons, even those with higher risk factors, are recommended to maintain their normal activities. Although the air quality when I was in Singapore was not problematic, millions of others in the region are often exposed to this highly polluted air for days at a time.

And residents must simply endure. Many of the particles can infiltrate walls, so staying indoors is not a solution. The World Health Organization recommends that people stay in spaces with filtered air, such as air-conditioning – a luxury to which many do not have access.

Many residents will not experience any health impacts because of the haze. But others will. While there are a number of risk factors, such as the very young or old, those with preexisting conditions, or an occupation that involves physical labor during the haze episodes, anyone can be affected. Health impacts range from eye and skin irritation to breathing issues, cardiovascular problems, and even death. In fact, each year there are around 110,000 deaths associated with these landscape fires.

Something to talk about

The link between ecosystem destruction, landscape fires, and human health is so direct and so incredibly problematic that I wonder why more people aren’t talking about it around the world.

They certainly are in Southeast Asia. Besides the devastating impact the haze has on human health, it causes economic disruptions and puts on strain on diplomatic relations. Singapore took the unprecedented step of passing a bill last year, the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, as an effort to hold entities (such as corporations or even individuals) liable for any involvement in landscape fires polluting Singapore’s air.

So while I escaped my trip to Singapore unscathed by the haze, I know I am lucky. Millions of others are affected with no recourse for action. But luckily there is something we can all do, by continuing to demand that companies ensure the palm oil they use is not contributing to the problem by making flammable landscapes through cutting down forests and draining peatlands.

And hopefully one day we may reach a point where residents don’t need daily reminders of air quality on their televisions because they can be assured that the air they breathe isn’t making them sick.

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  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks for the info and the photos. As it is said, ‘a picture is worth w thousand words.’ This piece did not note UCS’s efforts to lower the demand for palm oil via its lobbying of various food corporations. It also did not note UCS’s plans to continue to do this in the months to come. I hope it will boost its efforts in this regard. I am ready to sign petitions and write my elected reps in Congress. Lead the way, please!

    • Lael Goodman

      Thanks Richard for your support. As you say, although I didn’t explicitly discuss it in this post, we are continuing to work with companies to ensure that they are sourcing palm oil that does not contribute to deforestation and destruction of peatlands. Thanks for reading!

  • Ken McGill

    Singapore may feel the direct effects, but all of the overpopulated, greedy countries of the west are responsible. The consumers drive demand and every citizen in high consumption countries like USA and the European nations is just as guilty as the farmer with the blazing torch in his hand. We must ignore the demands of big business and progress toward zero population growth. We are the problem, and, with courage, we can be the solution.