Respiratory Illnesses Rise in Brazil as Amazon Fires Rage

Wildfires burned the Chiquitania Forest near Robore, Bolivia, one of tens of thousands of fires burning in six Amazonia countries. (AP photo/Juan Karita)

PORTO VELHO, Brazil (AP) — Lingering smoke in the Amazon is causing concern among Brazilians who say that respiratory problems — particularly among children and the elderly — have increased as fires in the region rage.

“The kids are affected the most. They’re coughing a lot,” said Elane Diaz, a nurse in the Rondonia state capital of Porto Velho, as she waited on Tuesday for a doctor’s appointment at the city’s 9 of July hospital with her 5-year-old-son Eduardo. “They have problems breathing. I’m concerned because it affects their health.”

The number of people treated for respiratory issues increased sharply in recent days at the local Cosme e Damia Children’s hospital.

“This period has been very tough. The dry weather and the smoke causes many problems on children, such as pneumonia, coughing and secretion,” Daniel Pires, a pediatrician and the hospital’s adjunct director told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. “From Aug. 1 to Aug. 10, the median (number) of cases was about 120 to 130 children with respiratory problems. From Aug. 11 to (Aug. 20) it went up to 280 cases.”

Growing fears about the health impacts are emerging as the number of fires in Brazil surges, with more than 77,000 documented by the country’s National Space Research Institute in the past year. About half of the fires were in the Amazon region, with most in the past month.

But as breathing-related ailments appear to be on the rise, attention to the issue has been overshadowed by growing acrimony between Brazil and European countries seeking to help fight Amazon fires and protect a region vital to the health of the planet.

At a summit in France this week, G-7 nations pledged to help fight the flames and protect the rainforest by offering $20 million, in addition to a separate $12 million from Britain and $11 million from Canada.

But Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right climate skeptic who took office this year with a promise to boost development in Latin America’s biggest economy, said offers of international aid mask a plot to exploit the Amazon’s resources and weaken Brazilian growth. On Tuesday, he said that French counterpart President Emmanuel Macron had called him a liar and would have to apologize before Brazil considers accepting rainforest aid.

Macron has to retract those comments “and then we can speak,” Bolsonaro said.

In a video message, bestselling Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho offered an apology to France for what he called Bolsonaro’s “hysteria,” saying the Brazilian government had resorted to insults to dodge responsibility for the Amazon fires.

A number of Brazilians have said they support Bolsonaro despite local and international criticism of his handling of the crisis, exposing a divide that has split the country.

Grace Quale, a hospital laboratory technician who attended a service at an evangelical church on Sunday, said that critics “want to overthrow our president,” and that she did not see a link between Bolsonaro’s environmental policies and the number of people getting treatment for respiratory problems.

Mona Lisa Pereira, an agronomist, also said criticism of Brazil’s government was skewed.

“Germany had already been helping through NGOs and they couldn’t prevent this,” Pereira said. “It seems like this is the fire of a lifetime. But it’s not. We have fires every year.”

Others said in an open letter that the government’s discourse and measures are leading to a “collapse in federal environmental management and stimulate environmental crimes inside and outside the Amazon.”

More than 500 employees from the environmental regulator IBAMA signed the letter and included a list of emergency measures they recommended, including more qualified management and employees, and a larger budget and increased autonomy.

The Amazon has seen an increased rate of fires during droughts in the past 20 years, but the phenomenon this year is “unusual” because drought has not hit, said Laura Schneider of Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Schneider, an associate professor in the geography department, said fire is commonly used to clear land for cultivation, and the area burned this year must be measured for an accurate comparison with damage in past years.

While many of the fires this year were set in already deforested areas by people clearing land for cultivation or pasture, Brazil government figures show they are much more widespread this year, suggesting the threat to the vast Amazon ecosystem is intensifying.

For now, more immediate consequences of the raging flames are becoming clear.

The world’s largest rainforest is a major absorber of carbon dioxide, a critical defense against rising temperatures and other disruptions caused by climate change.

The government in the Amazonian state of Rondonia has warned that burning can produce smoke that can “greatly influence atmospheric pollution, putting the life of many at risk.”

Experts there said that when exposed to smoke, residents can suffer from rhinitis, sinus and respiratory problems such as asthma and bronchitis, while chronic exposure can lead to pulmonary illnesses, including lung emphysema.

“We’ve seen that (Porto Velho) has been taken over by smoke, so inhaling those antigens and pathogens can harm the whole city’s population,” Ana Carolina Terra Cruz, a specialist in pulmonary illnesses, told the state government website.

On Tuesday, some clouds and a blue sky were partly visible in the Porto Velho morning light. But by the afternoon, haze had settled again, with smoke so thick that it darkened the usually blazing sun.

Pereira, the agronomist, said that smoke was “everywhere.”

“It’s bad for everyone,” she said. “Not just our children.”

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