Indonesia forest fires stunt child growth: study

The 1997 Indonesian forest fires have been blamed for stunting growth in children, who were unborn or babies at the time, according to research from Duke University and the National University of Singapore.

It is estimated that around 20 million people’s health was harmed by the 1997 wildfires, including around 1 million infants and unborn children.

Prenatal exposure to smoke from forest fires caused a statistically significant 3.4cm decrease in expected height in 17-year-olds, the authors said.

The study focused on children’s heights when they were three, 10 and 17.
“Because adult height is associated with income, this implies a loss of about 3 per cent of average monthly wages for approximately 1 million Indonesian workers born during this period,” the study said.

“While previous research has drawn attention to the deaths caused by the forest fires, we show that survivors also suffer large and irreversible losses. Human capital is lost along with natural capital because of haze exposure,” the paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argued.

Lower birth weight and premature births are already associated with air pollution.
The study argued that the children’s stunted growth, indicative of poorer health, affected their earning potential by up to 4 per cent.

When considering assumed working ages, average labouring wages of about US$860 and other factors, the paper estimated that the lifetime productivity loss for the exposed population of 1.13 million was about US$392 each.

Breathing the air in 1997 was estimated at the equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes per day.

Co-author Subhrendu Pattanayak of the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy said: “There are ways to eliminate these fires that are not that expensive, so this seems a very shortsighted way to develop and grow an economy.”

A drought caused by El Niño in 1997 meant that fires started to clear land, largely for environmentally ruinous palm-oil plantations, burned out of control in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Between August and October, 11 million hectares burned. Around a quarter of global carbon emissions were generated by Indonesian fires in 1997.

The study monitored 560 children, tracked since 1993 by the Indonesian Family and Life Survey (ILFS), who were in the womb or under six months old during the fires.

Farmers and oil palm growers made minor savings on clearing land but the Economy and Environment Programme for Southeast Asia estimated that the total losses for 1997 and 1998 could be US$5-6 billion in terms of long-term economic, environmental and health damage.

The 1997 fires cast a long shadow. Picture credit: Wikimedia