Amazon fires drive spike in child breathing problems in Brazil: study

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of a tract of Amazon jungle burning as it is cleared by farmers in Itaituba, Para, Brazil September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA (Reuters) - The surge in fires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest this year fueled a spike in young children being treated for breathing problems as smoke clouded the air throughout the region, according to a study released on Wednesday.

Roughly 5,000 children aged nine or younger were treated each month in May and June in 36 areas within Brazil’s so-called “arc of deforestation,” the area partially encircling the Amazon where destruction of the forest is the highest, according to a study by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a public health research institute.

That is double the monthly average for the past 10 years, with the study linking the rise to the forest fires.

The study only examined cases for May and June, the latest data available, when the number of fires were slightly higher than the previous year. But that period is well before the surge in August when fires in the Amazon nearly tripled compared to the same period a year ago.

The number of forest fires in the Amazon for the year had surged to their highest point since 2010 by August, drawing global outcry that Brazil was not doing enough to protect the world’s largest tropical rainforest.

Environmentalists and researchers say that farmers and others destroying the forest were purposefully setting the fires. Brazil’s government sent in the military to fight the fires and launched an investigation into the causes.

Cristovao Barcelos, one of the researchers who wrote the study, said it stands to reason that with the increase of fires starting from July that the number of cases could also show an increase.

“There’s a sequence that starts with deforestation, then comes fires and breathing problems,” Barcelos said.

In areas recording more fires than usual, a child is 36% more likely to develop respiratory problems, the study said. Barcelos added that 2% of the children who sought treatment later died.

Reporting by Rodrigo Viga Gaier and Jake Spring; Editing by Marguerita Choy