- Fires are gaining momentum in Acre, a state in southwesten Brazil 80% covered in old-growth Amazon rainforest, where a historic drought and high levels of deforestation have experts worried that this will be a bad year for fires
- Wildfires generate small particulate matter which, when inhaled, can travel into the lungs, bloodstream, and vital organs, causing serious damage, akin to cigarette smoke.
- Data from Acre’s air-quality monitoring network, the largest in the Amazon, show that during the peak burning seasons in 2019 and 2020, the rates of particulate matter hovered well above the level recognized by the World Health Organization as clean and safe for breathing
- Wildfire smoke has been linked to higher COVID-19 mortality rates, threatening to compound what is already one of the worst burdens of coronavirus infections and deaths in the world. At particular risk are Indigenous populations, who suffer mortality rates 1.5 times the average in Brazil.
The spread of fires in a Brazilian state that’s still mostly swathed in Amazon rainforest is raising alarms about risks to public health, compounding what’s already one of the worst burdens of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the world..
“The population of Acre [state] is blown away by the smoke from our own fires and by fires from other regions of the Amazon,” Sonaira Souza da Silva, a fire expert and professor at the Federal University of Acre, in southwestern Brazil, told Mongabay. “Fires are harmful to the Amazon as a whole, but especially to the state of Acre, due to the wind currents that bring the smoke.”
Acre, which is about the size of the U.S state of Florida, is 80% covered in old-growth Amazon rainforest, and is where the winds that carry the Amazon’s “flying rivers” — the large masses of moisture emitted by the vegetation — change course from the east to the southeast.
According to the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), 29 major fires have been set during the dry season in Acre this year as of Aug. 15, burning more than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres). Only one major fire was reported by the same date last year, burning 20 hectares (50 acres).
These agricultural and forest fires are not only a threat to forests and biodiversity, but also to people. Wildfire smoke includes small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (called PM2.5) which, when inhaled, can travel into the lungs, bloodstream, and vital organs, causing serious damage.
“Today we had an increase of PM2.5 [levels in the air] in the afternoon,” Foster Brown, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center and adjunct professor at the Federal University of Acre, told Mongabay in a text message from Acre’s capital, Rio Branco, on Aug. 17. “One contributing source was large fires in southern Amazonas state … Burning in one place can affect air quality a hundred or more kilometers away.
“That is what we are breathing right now,” Brown added.
Acre has the largest air-quality monitoring network in the Amazon, with 30 sensors distributed across the state’s 22 municipalities. Data collected by the sensors paint a grim picture. During the peak burning seasons (August through October) in 2019 and 2020, the rates of particulate matter hovered well above the levels recognized by the World Health Organization as clean and safe for breathing.
“We anticipate more cases of high concentrations of PM2.5 with sources ranging from backyard trash burns, to nearby felled burns, to distant points,” Brown said. “The public health effect of these mixtures is enormous.”
Many different institutions are now monitoring air quality around the world and using air-quality data to connect the dots between fires and human health. The Air Quality Life Index, produced by the University of Chicago, analyzes smoke pollution to calculate how many years of life expectancy people are losing as a result of being exposed to PM2.5 at current levels compared to WHO guidelines.
During severe droughts in Acre in 2005 and 2010, Rio Branco had worse air quality than São Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere.
“[In 2010] someone living in Rio Branco would have a life expectancy of half a year to two years less than someone living on the coast,” Brown said in a Virtual Keystone Symposia. “And I look at it from a personal perspective, because I live in Rio Branco.”
“The smoke arising in large quantities from both deforestation and understory fires is extremely toxic, causing shortness of breath, coughing, and lung damage,” says a 2020 letter in the journal Science. “Fires in the Amazon are responsible for 80% of increases in fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) regionally, affecting 24 million Amazonians.”
The overlap of fires and COVID-19 peaks could be a “catastrophe” for the Brazilian Amazon, warned a report from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) released in May 2020, highlighting that the compounding impacts of twin spikes in forest fires and COVID-19 cases could be devastating to local communities. More than 569,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, and the country is third only to the U.S. and India in number of infections, with nearly 20.4 million confirmed cases, according to the WHO’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Although Acre doesn’t account for the country’s major COVID-19 cases and deaths — it’s at 18th and 22nd positions, respectively, among 26 states and the Federal District — the situation in the state is worrying, given the combination of current high rates of air pollution and fires and drought, experts say.
Particularly at risk in the Amazon are Indigenous populations, who suffer mortality rates 1.5 times higher than average in Brazil, according to a 2020 report by researchers at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB). Indigenous people are also historically and genetically more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.
A recent study linked wildfires in the U.S. Western states to an increase in COVID-19 deaths, even after accounting for other health and environmental factors.
“We know that particulate matter is bad for our respiratory system,” Daniel Kiser, an assistant research assistant at Desert Research Institute, told medical news publication Verywell Health. “It could weaken our immune response and causes inflammation that then makes it more susceptible to infection from COVID-19.”
Fires in the Amazon are used to clear land for agricultural practices such as cattle ranching and soy farming, and follow behind deforestation. However, in recent years fires have been escaping crop and cattle fields and burning in standing rainforest, where fires have historically not occurred naturally.
A historic drought in the Amazon this year, along with high levels of deforestation, have experts worried that this will be a particularly bad year for fires, including forest fires.
“Wildfire smoke is not all that different than cigarette smoke — they’re both biomass burning products,” Michael Kleinman, professor of environmental toxicology and co-director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, told Verywell Health. “And we know how bad cigarette smoke is.”
And in Acre, “the potential for more burning is actually getting worse and we’ve got new variants of COVID causing higher rates of transmission and perhaps higher complications,” Brown said. “Who knows what we will have in the future.”
De Oliveira, G., Chen, J. M., Stark, S. C., Berenguer, E., Moutinho, P., Artaxo, P., … Aragão, L. E. (2020). Smoke pollution’s impacts in Amazonia. Science, 369(6504), 634.2-635. doi:10.1126/science.abd5942
Zhou, X., Josey, K., Kamareddine, L., Caine, M. C., Liu, T., Mickley, L. J., … Dominici, F. (2021). Excess of COVID-19 cases and deaths due to fine particulate matter exposure during the 2020 wildfires in the United States. Science Advances, 7(33), eabi8789. doi:10.1126/sciadv.abi8789
Banner image of firefighters in Acre by Auricelio Dantas de Souza and Antônio Maycon Almeida dos Santo.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_
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