Workshop on WHO Health Guidelines for Episodic Vegetation Fire Events, Lima, Peru 6-9 October 1998


Workshop on WHO Health Guidelines for Episodic Vegetation Fire Events

Lima, Peru 6-9 October 1998

Sponsored by:

World Health Organization (WHO)

World Meteorological Organization (WMO)

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)



I. Background

Human-caused and natural wildfires in forests and other vegetation as well as land-use fires occur in many parts of the world. Smoke from vegetation fires consists mainly of fine particulate matter in the respirable range and to a lesser extent, of carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are not generally relevant to the long distance transport of air pollutants. During the episode of smoke in the South East Asian countries, monitoring of particulate matter of mean aerodynamic diameter at or below 10 m has shown that short-term air quality standards of WHO´s 1987 air quality guidelines for respirable particulate matter are largely exceeded.

The recurrence of transboundary smoke originating from uncontrolled forest fire and land-use fires in many countries around the world causing acute and long-term respiratory health problems requires a comprehensive strategy based on broad international consensus. Any comprehensive strategy must include:

  1. rapid detection capability of uncontrolled forest fire emergencies on a global scale;
  2. the gathering of useful and reliable monitoring data and health surveillance;
  3. the dissemination of information to all affected parties for appropriate decision making; and
  4. the development of national environmental and health response plans to forest fire emergencies, based on an international guideline.

Environmental as well as health aspects, cause-effect relationships, long-range pollution transport, etc. must be taken into consideration.

Case studies on the health impact of past and current large area forest fires must be examined and used to:

  1. correlate induced health effects with downwind concentration levels of particulate emissions and other pollutants; and
  2. develop a series of recommended steps for decision making and actions to be taken, when particulate and other pollutants from regional vegetation burning reach unacceptable levels.

Advanced monitoring data already collected and currently being measured in case studies of regional fire and smoke episodes from satellites, aircraft, and ground-based air sampling networks must be reviewed and examined in the context of its possible interpretation and use by the international health care community, in early decision making after the detection of fire event. The combination of global and regional meteorological data, atmospheric mass transport modelling, and real-time monitoring data on primary biomass particulate emissions, secondary aerosols, and other pollutants must be viewed as a vital part of any comprehensive strategy to both determine large area forest fire or source emissions characterization and downwind air quality impact on human population, quickly, for decision making during the episode.

A workshop of a small group of high-level experts with personal experience covering collectively all pertinent aspects of the problem was convened and the experts were organized into two Work Groups covering:

Work Group I – Environmental Health Issues:

  1. medical case studies of induced health effects resulting from large fire events;
  2. air pollution exposure assessment;
  3. air pollution (particulate matter) toxicology and epidemiology;
  4. effects of smoke from vegetation fires on human health;
  5. methods of health surveillance; and
  6. government health policies, including early emergency response procedures.

Work Group II – Environmental Monitoring and Global Meteorological Modelling Techniques:

  1. chemical properties/speciation of compounds, especially particulates;
  2. advanced regional and global satellite, aircraft mounted, and ground based environmental monitoring technologies;
  3. global and regional meteorological mass transport modelling, forecasting, prediction of concentrations; and
  4. regulatory environmental policies, including early emergency response procedures.

The experts came from different regions having shared interest in this problem (i.e. Latin America, North America, South East Asia, Western Pacific, and Africa).

WHO, at present, does not have any guidelines on how to advise Governments in emergency cases such as encountered with respect to vegetation fires and the smoke possibly affecting millions of people. As a consequence, it was determined that such guidelines should be developed on a very short time base.

The final guidelines will be based on a background document developed by a consultant from background papers that were solicited from and prepared by the small group of high level experts. The consultant – Orman Simpson, USA was named by AMRO/PAHO for the purpose of commissioning background papers, developing the background document, organizing a working meeting of the expert group, hereinafter referred to as the Expert Meeting, and preparing a final draft Guidelines document for delivery to WHO. The outcome of the Expert Meeting was a first draft Guideline document “WHO Guidelines for Vegetation Fire Periodic Events” which will be reviewed on a time-limited basis after the Expert Meeting by the Workshop Chair and two Vice-Chairs. Based on the results of the Review, a final draft Guidelines document are to be prepared and delivered to WHO. WHO will then review, edit, and publish the final Guidelines. In addition, the background document of papers written by the experts will be published as a scientific reference to the final Guidelines.

Elements of the draft guideline document include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Review and summary of globally available information and case studies on the health impacts of vegetation fires;

  2. Review and summary of globally available monitoring information and data from measurement campaigns on vegetation fires;

  3. Characterization of air pollutant components in vegetation fires and their associated health effects;

  4. Recommendations on the interpretation and use of monitoring data, global and regional meteorological data, and atmospheric mass transport modelling to determine source apportionment of smoke episodes (i.e., large area source emissions characterization) and determine or predict down-wind air quality impact on human population;

  5. Review and summary of existing national guidelines on forest fires emergencies;

  6. Guidance on scientific methodologies for studying vegetation fire-induced health effects;

  7. Guidance for contingency plans, including a series of recommended steps to be used in decision making during a fire episode and actions to taken;

  1. Protective devices
  2. Information of the public
  3. Practical advice
  4. Training

    8. Guidance on regulatory environmental and health governmental policies and legal aspects.

The Expert Meeting was held at CEPIS, Lima, Peru during the week of 5-9 October and was co-sponsored by WHO, WMO, and UNEP.

The Lima Expert Meeting objectives included the following:

  1. Review and summarize globally available information and case studies on the health impacts of smoke generated by vegetation fires;

  2. Review and summarize globally available monitoring data and information from measurement campaigns on vegetation fires;

  3. Review and summarize existing national guidelines of forest fires emergencies;

  4. Develop a draft “Health Guidelines on Periodic Vegetation Fire Events” giving guidance on mitigation measures, vulnerability reduction, preventive action, environmental policy options, and future emergency response mechanisms.

These recommendations and guidelines should then be brought to the attention of the responsible national, regional (e.g. ASEAN) and international bodies (e.g. UNCSD) by the WHO Director-General. These recommendations should also form the basis for suitable arrangements and mechanisms (e.g. emergency response, vulnerability reduction, environmental health action plans, etc.) within WHO – at country, regional, interregional and global levels.

II. Outline of the Guidelines Document

Title: WHO Health Guidelines for Episodic Vegetation Fire Events

1. Introduction

General Introductory Section

2. Air Pollution from Forest Fires and Health

This section sets the scene for the rationale and development of the guidelines for fire and smoke emergencies, implementation, etc..

2.1 Basic Facts

Types and causes of wildfires and land-use fires, physico-chemical aspects of air pollutants from forest fires – definitions, notation, measurement techniques, sources of different types of data, interpretation of data for decision making, influencing factors affecting concentrations, source emission characterization and determining downwind exposures and their associated health effects, assessment of health effects in practice, quality assurance issues in implementation of guidelines for forest fires, etc.;

2.2 Global Situation

Overview of the exposure situation with regard to forest fires events in different world regions; highlighting key problems and issues, with emphasis on developing countries, lessons learned, on the basis of literature and case studies.

2.3 Role of Guidelines for Forest Fire Emergencies

How to use and apply the guidelines. Developing a national policy and strategy for responding to vegetation fire and smoke emergencies. How to obtain and use data for decision making in environmental health action plans.

3. Guidelines on Forest Vegetation Fire Emergencies for Public Health Protection

3.1 Smoke episodes emissions characterization and assessment of health risks related to downwind air quality.

3.2 Guidance on measures in emergency cases – contingency plans:

  1. Information of the public
  2. Protective devices
  3. Mitigation measures
  4. Practical advice
  5. Training;

    3.3 Guidance on methodology for assessment of health effects induced by burning of vegetation: epidemiological studies of short-term, long term effects, study design, confounding variable, statistical evaluation, etc.

    3.4 Application of appropriate short-term air quality guidelines: applicability of WHO air quality guidelines, application of other short-term guidelines, e.g. emergency values

    3.5 Factors influencing health outcomes: description of the influence of elevation, humidity, tropical climate, nutritional status, health status, vulnerability, etc. on the actual health impacts of air pollutants from vegetation burning on the individual and on vulnerable groups

    3.6 Guidance on regulatory environmental and health governmental policies and possible legal issues.

    4. Prevention of Future Health-Affecting Events

    Emergency response and present technological tools available to minimize and/or prevent health impact of smoke episodes. Policies and actions to prevent future uncontrolled wildfires and undesirable land-use fires around the world. Recommendations for future environmental data gathering during smoke episodes and its interpretation/use by public health officials

    III. Expert Meeting

    Title: Expert Meeting on Health Guidelines for Episodic Vegetation Fire Events

    Venue: CEPIS, Lima, Peru

    Time: 6-9 October, 1998


    1. Review and summarise globally available information and case studies on the health impacts of smoke from vegetation fires;
    2. Review and summarize globally available monitoring data and information from measurement campaigns on vegetation fires;
    3. Review and summarise existing national guidelines of forest fires emergencies;
    4. Review and finalise a draft “WHO Health Guidelines for Episodic Vegetation Fire Events”


    Draft Table of Contents

    List of participants



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