In 2002, Narayan Sastry a Princeton-trained demographer working at the Rand Corporation, a private think-tank in Californias Santa Monica published a paper entitled Forest Fires, Air Pollution, and Mortality in SE Asia in the February 2002 issue of the journal Demography.
The smog of 1997 coincided with an El Nino year which exacerbated the seasonal mid-year droughts. The land clearing and forest fires in that year burned an estimated 2% to 3% of Indonesian land area mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, but also affecting sizeable tracts in Irian Jaya, Sulawesi, Java, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Wetar as well as areas in Sarawak (West Malaysia) and Brunei.
Sastry obtained daily mortality statistics from the Department of Statistics in Malaysia and correlated these with the daily API readings from the Malaysian Meteorological Bureau in order to analyse the acute mortality in Kuching and Kuala Lumpur following days of high air pollution (defined as days when PM10 exceeds 210 ug/m3).
For a 15-day period in September 1997, the Air Pollution Index (API, largely based on the suspended particulates of size 10 microns and below [PM10]) in Kuching reached or exceeded 850. The highest API reading recorded was 930, and visibility was down to about 10 metres. In Peninsular Malaysia, API readings hovered in the 200-300 range during the same period. One hesitates to even imagine what the situation would have been like in the affected parts of Indonesia closer to the infernos.
His salient findings were reported thus in the professional journal:
“… a high air pollution day associated with the smoke haze increased the total all-cause mortality by roughly 20%. Higher mortality was apparent in two locations – Kuala Lumpur and Kuching (Sarawak) and affected mostly the elderly.
“In Kuala Lumpur, non-traumatic mortality among the population aged 65-74 increased about 70% following a day of high levels of air pollution. This effect was persistent; it was not simply a moving forward of deaths by a couple of days (a harvesting effect). This finding suggests that there were real and serious health effects of the smoke haze.
“One implication of these results on the short-term effects of the smoke haze in Malaysia is that the effects in Indonesia itself are likely to have been tremendous. The presence of significant mortality effects in Malaysian cities that are several hundred miles away from the main fires strongly supports this notion. Unfortunately, there are no appropriate health or mortality data for Indonesia to study this issue directly.”
In lay language, the immediate death rate among elderly people in Malaysia (excluding deaths due to accidents or violence) increased by 70% when API readings exceeded 210.
We are rightly concerned about the possible long-term health effects of repeated annual exposures to these smogs. But we already have strongly suggestive evidence that smogs such as we experience now can kill.