Devastating fires throughout the Amazon Rainforest have caused global alarm in recent weeks as world leaders fear that the world’s largest land-based carbon sink could be at risk of collapsing, intensifying the effects of climate change.
Now the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning that the fires pose an immediate health risk to children, according to Reuters.
As the Amazon goes up in flames, the air in surrounding areas is becoming filled with smoke that can trigger and exacerbate a range of health problems, the WHO reports.
“We have some anecdotal reports of increase of certain respiratory diseases in children but nothing that we can report from a systematic monitoring,” said Dr. Maria Neira, director of WHO’s public health, environment, and social determinants of health department.
“It will be not different from what other pollutants in the air will be affecting our health — cardiovascular diseases, acute respiratory problems,” she added.
Communities near the fires have been evacuated and Brazil’s government recently deployed the military to contain the blazes, Reuters reports. But smog from the burning rainforest is traveling long distances, including thousands of miles away to São Paulo, where the sky recently turned black with smoke.
Air pollution is a year-round health threat. An estimated 8.8 million people die prematurely from air pollution each year, and many more people experience health complications on an ongoing basis. Toxic airborne particles and gaseous compounds affect the human body in a number of ways. Microscopic particles can penetrate the lungs and travel along the bloodstream, while gases can be absorbed and dissolve into cells. Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks, strokes, and heart disease. It diminishes a person’s intelligence, leads to depression, and can harm every cell in a person’s body.
Children, the elderly, and people who work outside are especially harmed by air pollution, according to the WHO.
Brazil has notoriously bad air quality, with airborne particle readings regularly exceeding three or four times the limit set by the WHO.
During the fire season, however, pollution spikes throughout Brazil as toxic particles fill and linger in the atmosphere. This year, in particular, the scale and severity of fires has created a more urgent public health predicament.
The fires also reflect the increasing health consequences of climate change. As fires, heat waves, and extreme weather events become more common around the world, medical organizations are warning that health problems will rise in tandem.