Southeast Asia has become the latest natural “laboratory” for establishing the relationship between air quality and the ability of humans to survive.
Businesses have been burning jungle to make way for palm oil and wood pulp plantations on the island of Sumatra. The area being cleared is “peatland” — swampland that stores carbon and is highly combustible.
The burning caused an estimated 500,000 people to seek medical care for respiratory illness on Sumatra and the adjacent island of Kalimantan. A statistical analysis by researchers at Harvard and Columbia Universities indicates that 100,300 deaths occurred due to exposure to the smoke from these fires.
The issues in Indonesia may not be limited to carbon, but they do link to discussions of the future of the coal industry in the US. This is more intense exposure than is found in the US. However, it strongly resembles the US in the era before air pollution controls. Below is a picture of Pittsburgh from 1940, as the US was arming for World War II..
According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic lower respiratory disease is the second leading cause of death among Americans.
Maybe we need to revisit air quality? Is it good enough?
(1) CDC “FastStats” http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
(2) Schonhardt, Sara, “Southeast Asia Haze Caused Over 100,000 Deaths, Study Says,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 Sept. 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-study-calculates-death-toll-of-southeast-asia-haze-1474273547
(3) University of Pittsburgh Collection
(4) Photography credit: second photo from The Guardian. First is unknown.