SINGAPORE’S Health Ministry is refuting a study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities, which estimated that 100,000 premature deaths in the island nation, Indonesia and Malaysia may have been caused by transboundary haze from forest fires.
According to Channel News Asia, the ministry said the study’s estimated 2,200 premature deaths in Singapore from the haze crisis in 2015 was “not reflective of the actual situation”.
It said this is because the modelling studies were based on “various assumptions” and the accuracy of the estimates were influenced by the validity of the assumptions.
“We note that the modelling study does not take into consideration the mitigating measures that were implemented by countries affected by the haze,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying, responding to queries from the media.
The ministry said short-term exposure to haze over the span of a few days would not cause any major health issues other than irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, in healthy individuals.
However, those with chronic heart or lung disease were at higher risk of facing complications.
“In past years, when the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was consistently in the higher range, we have activated the Haze Subsidy Scheme to make it affordable for those with haze-related conditions to seek treatment,” the ministry said.
The age-standardised death rate in Singapore, the MOH added, was not higher in 2015, compared with the years 2010 to 2014.
Its figures, as cited by Channel News Asia, show the age-standardised mortality rate per 1,000 residents in Singapore was 3.2 in 2015, compared to 3.3 in 2014 and 3.4 the year before.
According to the study, there is a high statistical probability that early haze-related deaths ranged between 26,300 and 174,300. Its main estimate of 100,300 deaths is the average of those two figures. It predicted 91,600 deaths in Indonesia, another 6,500 in Malaysia and 2,200 in Singapore.
The researchers involved in the study said the model they developed can be combined with satellite and ground station observations to analyze the haze in close to real time. That gives it the potential to be used to direct firefighting efforts in a way that reduces the amount of illness caused, they said.
The possible scale of serious health consequences was indicated by a statement from Indonesia’s disaster management agency in October that said more than 43 million in the country were exposed to smoke from the fires and half a million suffered acute respiratory infections.
The study considered only the health impact on adults and restricts itself to the effects of health-threatening fine particulate matter, often referred to as PM2.5, rather than all toxins that would be in the smoke from burning peatlands and forests.
Haze largely caused by illegal slash-and-burn agricultural policies in Indonesia has affected the Southeast Asian region annually for decades.
Additional reporting from the Associated Press