Countering the health effects of peat fires

Countering the health effects of peat fires

30 May 2017

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Indonesia – For the past 360 million years, waterlogged land areas of our planet have been covered with the dense black decay of decomposed vegetation known as peat. Some peatlands have taken more than a thousand centuries to form, becoming the world’s most efficient carbon sinks.

However, in less than an hour, this highly-combustible soil can be burned and destroyed, releasing a toxic haze of carbonaceous gases and particles that can devastate both landscapes and the health of communities living within them.

In addition to producing more smoke than normal fires, burning at lower temperatures, and being extremely difficult to extinguish, peat fires – according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – are also not very well-understood.

In an effort to heighten the general level of understanding, a panel of speakers from the United Nations, a Jakarta tech lab, and global research and aid organizations sat down together at the Peatland fires, haze and health science discussion at the Global Landscapes Forum: Peatland Matters thematic event held in Jakarta on May 18. Panelists discussed various efforts underway in Indonesia’s 14 fire-prone peat districts to counter the harmful effects of haze.


On those early spring days when the air is full of pollen, or in dusty places full of mold, the Air Quality Index will generally be at a level of a particulate matter concentration of 10 (PM10). These are prime conditions for stoking allergies, but the air is unlikely to cause any serious damage.

PM2.5, however – the air quality index during haze conditions – means the air is filled with particulates, heavy metals, and noxious compounds ranging from cyanide to ammonia and formaldehyde that can lead to spontaneous abortions, pre-term birth, death of children under five, asthma, and mental impairments in babies.

“There are immediate and lifelong carcinogenic impacts,” said Richard Wecker, a disaster risk reduction and emergencies specialist at UNICEF Indonesia. “Children especially have a higher intake of toxins because their metabolism is faster, and even though they feel the effects of haze, they just want to go outside and play.”

Part of Wecker’s work is finding and implementing tools to help people most at-risk of haze exposure and its dangerous effects, and children in particular. This means not just increasing access to existing tools, but also redesigning them. N95 particulate-filtering facemasks, for instance, are an obvious starting point for distributable aid, but these masks are often too large to fit snuggly on a child’s face.

“Local puskesmas [community health clinics] could supply these with their budget, but the masks need to be re-fitted for children,” said Wecker.

During peak haze conditions, though, even N95 masks are insufficient. A solution for these times is safe indoor spaces that are sealed from the outdoors and have proper air-filtration systems – a far cry from the conditions of most schools and homes in Indonesia.

Authorities should also encourage a set of standard operating procedures when air conditions become dangerous. “This begins with installing low-cost sensors so people can track and monitor when the air is approaching a threshold. School schedules then need to be changed and communicated,” said Wecker.

Also missing from the overall aid recipe is better data on at-risk groups in order to better understand the scale of peat haze’s health impacts. “Data from peatland fires differs from data on regular forest fires. We need to start looking at what’s happening to people from a very young age, not just looking at ages 25 and above.”

Wecker suggested a few ways of how this could be accomplished: linking satellite data with long-term studies on air pollution and human health, as well as through traditional epidemiological methods of linking statistics from puskesmas and hospitals with air pollution data.

Broadening out the goals of his work, Wecker noted that saving lives begins with a more comprehensive look at the causes and effects of changes to natural peatland landscapes.

“Aside from looking at mortality and morbidity, we also need to look at the implications of land use decisions on health outcomes. The decision to clear a certain plot of peatland – what does that translate to, in terms of costs on human life and the health system? What’s the long-term cost of land clearing on the human population?”


Ultimately, the most sustainable way of reducing the taxing impacts of haze conditions is reducing response time to peat fires as well as their frequency altogether.

Derval Usher, Head of Pulse Lab Jakarta – an innovation space established in 2012 by the United Nations in partnership with the Indonesian Ministry of National Development and Planning – has sought to do this by linking the eyes and ears of peatland communities to the government. After all, who better to monitor the conditions of peatlands than the people who live within these ecosystems?

To this end, Pulse Lab has developed Haze Gazer, an analytical dashboard that looks at various digital databases to monitor the conditions of peatlands around the archipelago in real time and feed this information directly to the office of the Indonesian president, in addition to the general public.

“Our goal is to capture what’s happening on the ground, so the government can make quick interventions,” said Usher. “In Indonesia, this works well, because of social media popularity. Twitter, satellite imagery, citizen journalism, YouTube, Instagram – it all goes onto one dashboard and then directly to those who can use it for decision-making and policymaking.”


However, a tool such as Haze Gazer is likely most beneficial for longer-term mitigation goals. Because peatland fires spread as rapidly as they do, it’s up to local community firefighters to act quickly enough to contain and extinguish them when they occur.

“Peatland combusts at a level of 55 percent moisture, which is very high, and it’s very difficult and expensive to deal with fires once they go sub-surface,” said Nico Oosthuizen, Divisional Director of Working on Fire International, an integrated fire management organization that works across five continents. “You really need to detect and respond within 15 minutes. After 45 minutes, you’re in trouble. Trees start falling within an hour.”

“Fire is a science, it’s the same everywhere,” he said. “If it’s on peatland and you fail to respond to it correctly, it leads to a disaster.”

Dealing with fire, he said, occurs in four phases: reduction, readiness, response, and recovery. If the paradigm can be shifted to focus on reduction and readiness, then ideally, the latter two phases are rarely reached.

To quicken this shift, Johan Kieft, a Senior Regional Technical Advisor at UN Environment, has been involved in the development of an early warning Fire Risk System to enable firefighters to better predict and prevent peatland fires before they happen.

“The link between El Niño and the Kalimantan fires is well established,” he said. “Now, it’s a matter of how to use early warning systems to mitigate health risks in fire-prone areas. We need to bring the health sector into fire response efforts.”

This type of cross-sector collaboration is certainly needed not only in practice, but also in funding. “The use of fire risk systems to plan and design better fiscal instruments for local governments can shift funding from fire suppression to prevention, which is cheaper,” said Sonny Mumbunan, a researcher and economist for World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia. “Preventative measures and education can save costs on emergency room runs and insurance.”

To bring things full circle, investing in firemen and preventative measures can also provide increased benefits to women and youth. In South Africa, which has been the focus of most of Oosthuizen’s work, firefighting seeks to employ both women and youth.

“It’s the best way to influence those coming into society,” he said – not only empowering them fiscally and skills-wise, but also helping mitigate long-term health impacts on themselves and future generations, too.”

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