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Forest fires: Child health at risk


SINGAPORE, 1 October 2019:  A United Nations body on Monday warned that the smog caused by the forest and peatland fires in Indonesia has put at risk the health of 10 million children.

A statement issued by UNICEF noted that small children are especially vulnerable to air pollution “because they breathe more rapidly.”

“Poor air quality is a severe and growing challenge for Indonesia,” said UNICEF representative in Indonesia. Debora Comini.

“Every year, millions of children are breathing toxic air that threatens their health and causes them to miss school — resulting in lifelong physical and cognitive damage,” she added.

The UN agency said nearly 2.4 million children under five live in the areas most affected by the haze and wildfires.

The burning forests in Indonesia since July 2019 has made life difficult for locals in some areas of the country as thick haze continues to cover skies.

The impact of the fires spread to neighbouring countries especially Singapore and Malaysia and last month caused problems for residents living in South Thailand including tourist destinations Hat Yai and Phuket Island.

Since the beginning of September, the sun has not been visible in the normally blue sky many affected areas in Indonesia and has reduced visibility across the region.

The UNICEF statement warned that air pollution affects babies even before they are born.

“Research has shown that babies born to mothers exposed to high levels of pollution during pregnancy are more likely to experience reduced growth while in utero, low birth weight, and be delivered preterm,” it added.

UNICEF said children under the age of five do not fully develop their immunities, which makes them vulnerable.

Quoting Indonesia’s Education and Culture Ministry, it said that more than 46,000 schools are currently affected by poor air quality, impacting more than 7.8 million students.

The government was forced to close the schools due to continuous haze.

“It is vital that families and children receive accurate information regarding their exposure to toxic air pollution, as this will help them to protect themselves,” said Comini.

Forest fire burning blights northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar from February to May. Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang University research team showed it posed a serious health hazard for residents.

Together the forest fires in Indonesia and north Thailand risk the health millions of residents in Southeast Asia and are a serious threat for tourism in the region.

Regional tourism and hospitality associations need to take up the challenge and lobby ASEAN governments to resolve the annual forest fire crisis.

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