Indonesian health officials on Tuesday downplayed a scientific study projecting that haze from last year’s peatland and timber fires could lead to as many as 100,000 deaths.
“It must be understood, this figure represents deaths before the age of life expectancy, not at the time of the fires. The prediction comes from a study model,“ Oscar Primadi, a spokesman for the Indonesian Health Ministry, told BenarNews.
Further research is needed to test the validity of the model, he added.
Mohammad Suboh, the Indonesian government’s director general of disease control and environmental health, called the study’s estimate “overblown.”
“That figure, in my view, is overblown, and it’s difficult to know where it came from. All the deaths were documented with death certificates,” he said, according to Tribunnews.
“According to the data that we have, from the health ministry, only 19 people died, and not as a direct impact of the smoke. They were already sick and their condition worsened due to the smoke,” Suboh said.
In a study published Monday in Environmental Research Letters, scientists from Harvard and Columbia universities used computer modelling, satellite data and population information to locate the fires in Indonesia in 2015, gauge toxicity of emissions and “estimate the resulting morbidity and premature mortality in downwind populations.”
The researchers concluded that “excess deaths” linked to the 2015 haze could be 91,600 in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore.
Those deaths would likely occur within a year of exposure to the haze, Jonathan Buonocore of Harvard University, one of the study authors, told BenarNews.
Buonocore said could not comment on Indonesian government statistics because he did not have information about how they were collected.
“It is important to note that the deaths we estimated are not just due to acute smoke inhalation. The health effects of air pollution can include other illnesses like respiratory disease, heart attack, and stroke, among others, which can lead to death,” he said.
“Using our model calculations of the contribution of fires to air pollution in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, and the large body of research on air pollution and health, our results are able to capture this mortality burden. The approach used here is standard for estimating the health burden of air pollution sources such as this, and is used by the US Environmental Protection Agency, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, among many others,” he said in an email.
2015 saw the worst Southeast Asia haze crisis since 1997. Smoke from the fires choked nearby countries for weeks, including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, and sent Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions soaring.
The fires, set to clear land for economic activity, burned 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) between June and October and cost Indonesia an estimated U.S. $16.1 billion, the World Bank said its Indonesia Economic Quarterly report issued in December 2015.
Mukri Friatna, an activist with the environmental group Walhi, said that while the death toll was debatable, last year’s fires created a tremendous disaster risk.
“The government did everything wrong. It didn’t call the incident a national disaster, with the excuse that it didn’t want corporate fire setters to escape responsibility, but at the same time law enforcement did not do its job,” he told BenarNews.
“Not a single company was punished. No corporate entity was convicted and sentenced for knowingly burning the forests, or due to negligence. This is a bad precedent in law enforcement,” he said.