- Fires are gaining momentum in Acre, a state in southwestern Brazil 80% covered in old-growth Amazon rainforest, where a historic drought and high levels of deforestation have experts worried that this will be a bad year for fires
- Wildfires generate small particulate matter which, when inhaled, can travel into the lungs, bloodstream, and vital organs, causing serious damage, akin to cigarette smoke.
- Data from Acre’s air-quality monitoring network, the largest in the Amazon, show that during the peak burning seasons in 2019 and 2020, the rates of particulate matter hovered well above the level recognized by the World Health Organization as clean and safe for breathing
- Wildfire smoke has been linked to higher COVID-19 mortality rates, threatening to compound what is already one of the worst burdens of coronavirus infections and deaths in the world. At particular risk are Indigenous populations, who suffer mortality rates 1.5 times the average in Brazil.
The spread of fires in a Brazilian state that’s still mostly swathed in Amazon rainforest is raising alarms about risks to public health, compounding what’s already one of the worst burdens of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the world..
“The population of Acre [state] is blown away by the smoke from our own fires and by fires from other regions of the Amazon,” Sonaira Souza da Silva, a fire expert and professor at the Federal University of Acre, in southwestern Brazil, told Mongabay. “Fires are harmful to the Amazon as a whole, but especially to the state of Acre, due to the wind currents that bring the smoke.”
Acre, which is about the size of the U.S state of Florida, is 80% covered in old-growth Amazon rainforest, and is where the winds that carry the Amazon’s “flying rivers” — the large masses of moisture emitted by the vegetation — change course from the east to the southeast.
According to the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), 29 major fires have been set during the dry season in Acre this year as of Aug. 15, burning more than 1,000 hectares (about 2,500 acres). Only one major fire was reported by the same date last year, burning 20 hectares (50 acres).
A firefighter in protective gear against the smoke holds a small rodent killed by the fire. Photo by Auricelio Dantas de Souza and Antônio Maycon Almeida dos Santo.
These agricultural and forest fires are not only a threat to forests and biodiversity, but also to people. Wildfire smoke includes small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (called PM2.5) which, when inhaled, can travel into the lungs, bloodstream, and vital organs, causing serious damage.
“Today we had an increase of PM2.5 [levels in the air] in the afternoon,” Foster Brown, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center and adjunct professor at the Federal University of Acre, told Mongabay in a text message from Acre’s capital, Rio Branco, on Aug. 17. “One contributing source was large fires in southern Amazonas state … Burning in one place can affect air quality a hundred or more kilometers away.
“That is what we are breathing right now,” Brown added.
Smoke and cloud over Acre cover on Aug 15, 2021. Red arrows indicate large fires in Amazonas state creating smoke that blows over Acre. Video loop via SLIDER by Regional and Mesoscale Meteorology Branch and Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University. Satellite data from the NOAA GOES Geostationary Satellite server. Courtesy of Foster Brown.
Smoke and clouds over the southwestern Amazon on Aug 11, 2021. Major fires are indicated by red arrows. Video loop via SLIDER by RMMB and CIRA at Colorado State University. Satellite data from the NOAA GOES. Courtesy of Foster Brown.
Acre has the largest air-quality monitoring network in the Amazon, with 30 sensors distributed across the state’s 22 municipalities. Data collected by the sensors paint a grim picture. During the peak burning seasons (August through October) in 2019 and 2020, the rates of particulate matter hovered well above the levels recognized by the World Health Organization as clean and safe for breathing.
“We anticipate more cases of high concentrations of PM2.5 with sources ranging from backyard trash burns, to nearby felled burns, to distant points,” Brown said. “The public health effect of these mixtures is enormous.”
Graph from Acre’s air quality monitoring program shows the month where harmful particulate matter from smoke surpassed the WHO daily limit considered safe and healthy from breathing. Graph by Acre Qualidade do Ar..
Many different institutions are now monitoring air quality around the world and using air-quality data to connect the dots between fires and human health. The Air Quality Life Index, produced by the University of Chicago, analyzes smoke pollution to calculate how many years of life expectancy people are losing as a result of being exposed to PM2.5 at current levels compared to WHO guidelines.
During severe droughts in Acre in 2005 and 2010, Rio Branco had worse air quality than São Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere.
“[In 2010] someone living in Rio Branco would have a life expectancy of half a year to two years less than someone living on the coast,” Brown said in a Virtual Keystone Symposia. “And I look at it from a personal perspective, because I live in Rio Branco.”
“The smoke arising in large quantities from both deforestation and understory fires is extremely toxic, causing shortness of breath, coughing, and lung damage,” says a 2020 letter in the journal Science. “Fires in the Amazon are responsible for 80% of increases in fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) regionally, affecting 24 million Amazonians.”
The overlap of fires and COVID-19 peaks could be a “catastrophe” for the Brazilian Amazon, warned a report from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE) released in May 2020, highlighting that the compounding impacts of twin spikes in forest fires and COVID-19 cases could be devastating to local communities. More than 569,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil, and the country is third only to the U.S. and India in number of infections, with nearly 20.4 million confirmed cases, according to the WHO’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Although Acre doesn’t account for the country’s major COVID-19 cases and deaths — it’s at 18th and 22nd positions, respectively, among 26 states and the Federal District — the situation in the state is worrying, given the combination of current high rates of air pollution and fires and drought, experts say.
An Indigenous community member puts on a mask during the pandemic in 2020. Photo credit: International Monetary Fund on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND.
Particularly at risk in the Amazon are Indigenous populations, who suffer mortality rates 1.5 times higher than average in Brazil, according to a 2020 report by researchers at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and the Coordination of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB). Indigenous people are also historically and genetically more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.
recent study linked wildfires in the U.S. Western states to an increase in COVID-19 deaths, even after accounting for other health and environmental factors.
“We know that particulate matter is bad for our respiratory system,” Daniel Kiser, an assistant research assistant at Desert Research Institute, told medical news publication Verywell Health. “It could weaken our immune response and causes inflammation that then makes it more susceptible to infection from COVID-19.”
Burning to clear pastures in the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve in Acre. Fires can have consequences for human health as the smoke creates small particulate matter which, when inhaled, can cause serious damage akin to cigarette smoke. Image by Katie Maehler/Mídia NINJA (CC-BY-NC).
Fires in the Amazon are used to clear land for agricultural practices such as cattle ranching and soy farming, and follow behind deforestation. However, in recent years fires have been escaping crop and cattle fields and burning in standing rainforest, where fires have historically not occurred naturally.
A historic drought in the Amazon this year, along with high levels of deforestation, have experts worried that this will be a particularly bad year for fires, including forest fires.
“Wildfire smoke is not all that different than cigarette smoke — they’re both biomass burning products,” Michael Kleinman, professor of environmental toxicology and co-director of the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, told Verywell Health. “And we know how bad cigarette smoke is.”
And in Acre, “the potential for more burning is actually getting worse and we’ve got new variants of COVID causing higher rates of transmission and perhaps higher complications,” Brown said. “Who knows what we have in the future.”