How Deadly Is ASEAN’s Killer Haze?

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How Deadly Is ASEAN’s Killer Haze?

A recent study has prompted controversy and calls for action.

A new study released Monday claims that the haze outbreak in Southeast Asia last year may have caused more than 100,000 deaths.

The haze is an annual problem in Southeast Asia, with forest fires in Indonesia causing a haze to blanket the sub-region for months. But last year’s fires were the worst recorded since 1997.

Now, a new study published in the journal Environment Research Letters has provided estimates as to the casualties from last year’s haze.

Researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities estimate that exposure from pollution from last year’s fires killed 91,600 people in Indonesia, 6,500 in Malaysia, and 2,200 in Singapore in 2015 and 2016.

All three governments mentioned in the study have been quick to challenge its findings. Mohamad Subuh, the director general of disease prevention and control at Indonesia’s health ministry, said the research “makes no sense at all,” with Indonesian government records indicating only 19 deaths related to forest fires in 2015, and 500,000 suffering minor health problems.

“Data on deaths is clear. We have surveillance,” Subuh told Reuters, adding that the assumptions of mortality based on mathematical calculations were “irresponsible.”

Singapore’s health ministry (MOH) also registered its own concerns, with a spokesperson saying that the death figure for Singapore was “not reflective of the actual situation.”

According to Channel NewsAsia, the spokesperson added that such modelling studies are based on “various assumptions” that influence the accuracy of their estimates, and that this study did not take into account mitigating measures implemented by countries affected by the haze.

Furthermore, the MOH also added that the age-standardized death rate in Singapore had actually declined in 2015 (3.2) relative to 2014 (3.3) and 2013 (3.4).

Malaysia’s deputy health director-general, S. Jeyaindran, maintained that Malaysia had no deaths last year directly related to the haze. He added that the Health Ministry had conducted a study on the haze effects on the human body and found that no grave health risks were likely.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, have pointed out that though study is a useful wake up call, it may actually be understating the true health impact of the haze due to the specifics of its methodology.

The study itself points out that it only focuses on deaths, rather than illnesses, on adults only, and on dangerous fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5 rather than other hazardous pollutants as well.