Potential health hazards of ‘smaze’

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Medicine Cabinet — Reiner W. Gloor

The haze from the burning Indonesian forests reached parts of Mindanao and the Visayas region a couple a weeks back, and may slowly and eventually reach Metro Manila with the arrival of the prolonged El Niño.

Experts from the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) prefer to call the combined smoke and haze from the burning forests of Indonesia as “smaze.”

The gradual spread of the smaze led the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Region 7 and Health officials in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to urge people in affected areas to take the necessary precautions to avoid possible exposure to air pollution allergens and contaminants from the smaze.

Regional officials of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau said their Koronadal and General Santos stations monitoring ambient air quality reported “an increasing trend” in dust and smoke particles from the Indonesian forest fires.

Pagasa announced on Oct. 28 that the smaze had abated with the exit of Typhoon Lando (international name: Koppu), whose winds had pulled the smoke into the country, but that it might return if another major weather disturbance changes the wind pattern

It expected that the coming prolonged and severe dry season due to El Niño may further aggravate the smaze, notably in the early months of 2016.

One of the leading environmental threats to human health is air pollution caused by very fine suspended particulate matter in the air. The most common are dust, dirt, soot, and smoke coming from forest fires, road dust, power plants, industrial processes, and cars and trucks.

Minute or extremely small particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in width are known as fine particulate matter or PM2.5. They are vividly described as “less than 1/30 the width of a human hair.”

Health professionals have always noted that these fine particulate matters may play a part in inducing or causing serious illnesses such as cancer and heart disease. They can kill.

This is because these fine particulate matters are so microscopic that they are easily inhaled and can penetrate deeply into the lungs. Once they are in the lungs, they can affect the heart, blood vessels, and the lungs themselves.

Long periods of exposure to these apparently contribute to an increase in the number of heart and lung problems, compared to populations which are not exposed to these air pollutants.

A marked decrease in the level of fine particulate matters may prevent deaths, notably those caused by heart attacks and heart disease.

Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that there is “a 15% decrease in the risk of heart disease deaths with every PM2.5 decrease of 10ug/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter).”

Long-term exposure to fine particles, the CDC said, is has been connected to coronary artery disease (CAD) — also known as coronary heart or ischemic heart disease. CAD occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, narrowing the arteries over time, and eventually leading to episodes of chest pain, irregular heartbeat, a weakened heart, or a heart attack, the CDC added.

“Scientists are still performing research to figure out exactly why fine particle exposure is related to ischemic heart disease,” the CDC said.

Smaze has been occurring more frequently — now at least once a year — although it usually does not affect the whole country. Countries affected by this unnatural event must come up with long-term and sustainable solutions, not just for citizen preparedness but also to put an end to, or curb the incidence of, smaze. Otherwise, those who are vulnerable — which is anyone with a preexisting health condition or lung diseases like asthma, older people, and babies and children — will continue to be affected.

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