Sugarcane-Associated Fires Are Detrimental to Respiratory Health: A Case Study in São Paolo

Researchers in São Paolo, Brazil investigated the current effects of sugarcane-associated fires on the respiratory health of the children and the elderly in the region.  Additionally, Uriarte et al. (2009) predicted how the recent expansion of sugarcane land might impact the number of fires in the region, and, thus, the respiratory health of the populace. They used data from a variety of sources in addition to the data that they collected themselves to show that seasonal variations in respiratory morbidity could be attributed to sugarcane-associated fire occurrences. Thus, they determined that burning sugarcane fields is a significant health hazard for the children and the elderly in the region and suggested that the recent expansion of sugarcane-dedicated land would lead to an increase in respiratory hospital admissions related to sugarcane fires. — Christina Mainero
Uriarte, M., Yackulic, C., Cooper, T., Flynn, D., Cortes, M., Crk, T., Cullman, G., McGinty, M., Sircely, J., 2009.  Expansion of sugarcane production in São Paulo, Brazil: Implications for fire occurrence and respiratory health. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 132, 48–56.

 Uriarte et al. (2009) explored the relationship among sugarcane production and cultivation for biofuel, fires associated with harvesting this sugarcane, and the respiratory health of the children and the elderly in São Paolo. Additionally, they predicted how increases in sugarcane-dedicated land would affect the prevalence of fires and the respiratory health of the population in the region.  The researchers gathered data regarding the cultivation and production of the major crops in each municipality; statistics on the occurrence of fires standardized by municipality; monthly air quality data on the concentrations of smoke, particulate matter (PM2.5), and total suspended particles in a subset of municipalities; hospital admissions for respiratory diseases of children and the elderly, and meteorological data on the total monthly precipitation and average monthly maximum temperature. 
Although a greater number of children than elderly were admitted to hospitals for respiratory illnesses during the course of the year, fire-associated respiratory morbidity was roughly 1.8% for both populations.  In municipalities where over 50% of the land was dedicated to sugarcane production, this morbidity percentage rose to 15% of cases among the elderly and 12% of cases among children.    Furthermore, the authors suggested that 38% of respiratory cases among children were likely caused by current or chronic fire exposures caused by previous fires in the area.
The researchers looked at the data regarding the expansion of sugarcane-dedicated land and anticipated that such an expansion would lead to an additional 672 fires in the region.  Their model predicted that these additional fires would cause an increase in the overall number of cases of respiratory illness of 4.8% among the elderly and 3.0% among children.  However, this model also suggested that between 2003 and 2006 the number of cases of fire-associated respiratory illnesses would increase by 224% among the elderly and 177% among children.
The authors noted, though, that there were some limitations to their study, specifically that the fire occurrence data collected over the years was captured by two different satellites and that they could not access complete data for respiratory illnesses during some of the years.  To account for and mitigate these issues, they used statistical modeling tools. 
This research is important because it suggested that a vast array of different social, economic, health, and labor factors must be considered in assessing the viability of biofuel production in particular regions.  Considering the societal and environmental costs of various biofuels is important given the interest in such fuels as a potential short-term solution to our world’s energy needs.

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