Indonesia Haze Blamed For More Than 100,000 Deaths

A toxic Indonesia haze, which was the result of several massive forest fires, is being blamed for the premature deaths of more than 100,000 people. Although the fires were extinguished and the haze has dissipated, the 2015 crisis sickened hundreds of thousands throughout Southeast Asia and cost the government an estimated $30 billion.

Unfortunately, as reported by the New York Times, the Indonesia fires were intentionally set.

Although the practice is illegal, several companies, which include palm oil and paper pulp manufacturers, start forest fires each year as an efficient and inexpensive means to clear land.

Clearing land legally, which involves heavy machinery, costs an estimated $150 per hectare. In stark contrast, burning the trees and brush costs only $7 per hectare.

Phys.Org reports farmers are permitted to use fire to clear land that is fewer than two hectares. However, Indonesia prohibits fires on larger parcels of land.

Despite the fact that it is illegal, plantation companies are blamed for setting numerous Indonesia fires each year. The practice may save the companies money. However, the fires can be disastrous to the surrounding communities and the ecosystem.

In 1997, Indonesia fires engulfed nearly 10 million hectares of land. Fewer than 20 years later, similarly destructive fires are blamed for fueling a toxic haze, which may have caused more than 100,000 deaths.

Experts from Columbia and Harvard Universities, who specialize in atmospheric modeling and public health, estimate the Indonesia haze caused the premature deaths of 100,300 people.

According to the study, as many as 91,000 Indonesian residents died as a result of the toxic haze. The pollutants are also blamed for as many as 6,500 deaths in Malaysia and 2,000 deaths in Singapore.

Although the numbers are alarming, some experts have suggested the estimate is conservative, as the study did not include children, infants, and pregnant women who miscarried.

Experts said the Indonesia haze had a specifically high concentration of PM 2.5, which is a toxin typically found in diesel emissions. When inhaled, PM 2.5 can cause serious illness, including asthma, bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer.

As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, the National Disaster Management Agency estimated more than 43 million people were exposed to the Indonesia haze “in Sumatra and Kalimantan alone.” The agency also confirmed 500,000 people were diagnosed with respiratory illness attributed to the toxic cloud.

However, the National Disaster Management Agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho denies claims that the Indonesia haze contributed to more than 100,000 premature deaths.

“It is not true. The data is not valid. If there were high numbers of people dead we would have stated it in our almost daily forest fire press releases last year.”

In the aftermath of the devastating Indonesia fires, more than 300 plantation companies are under investigation for setting illegal forest fires.

General Badrodin Haiti, with the National Police Department, confirmed a total of 83 suspects were arrested and three companies had their licenses revoked. Eleven other companies had their licenses suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

Officials believe an estimated 50,000 fires were intentionally set in Indonesia between July and November 2015. As the country was experiencing a drought, the fires spread beyond their planned perimeters and contributed to the massive toxic haze.

In addition to causing illness in humans, the Indonesia haze prevented sunlight from reaching crops and halted air transportation for several days.

The fires also destroyed habitats and sent wild animals, including herds of elephants and Sumatran tigers, into local communities in search of food and shelter. The loss of habitat also made some animals, including orangutans, more vulnerable to poachers.

Although the Indonesia haze and fires have dissipated, they are both expected to return as they have each year since the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, for many companies, the risk of arrest or disaster is worth the money they save by setting fires to clear their land.

[Featured Image by KRIVOLUTCKII IGOR/Shutterstock]