Amazon fires: Health Effects, Near and Far

forest fires_

(Alfred Kenneally, Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Rahba El-Amin, a fourth year medical student at the University of Khartoum in Sudan. She is affiliated to the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


“I am I plus my surroundings. If I do not preserve the latter, I do not preserve myself.”

The Amazon rainforest fires that have been blazing out of control in Brazil for weeks, could have far-reaching effects on our health, experts warn. It is high time prominent voices amplify a discussion on Forest fires’ effect on global health.

The wildfires blazing in “the planet’s lungs” are also damaging ours. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Climate and Health Assessment, wildfire smoke contains a mixture of carbon monoxide, ozone, toxic chemicals, and both fine and coarse particles. These pollutants present serious health risks to both those living close to the fire, as well as those thousands of miles downwind, since smoke can travel across the country and around the world. According to numerous studies, wildfire smoke has been associated with increased mortality, cardiac events, and a range of respiratory effects, including asthma attacks. The median number of cases of children in Brazil with respiratory problems went up from 130 to 280 cases right after the fires. Indigenous groups, residents and those living in poverty have also been disproportionately impacted.

Erosion of soils (exacerbated by the forest fires) containing naturally high levels of mercury have resulted in high levels of mercury in downstream waters. This exposure to mercury can lead to lowered resistance to disease, insanity and mental retardation.

Following the wildfires, there has been an increased burden on healthcare and public health systems. The Forest fires have necessitated large evacuations, requiring establishment of shelters, and treatment of individuals for injuries, smoke inhalation, and mental health impacts. The psychological recovery of residents has been one of the most difficult problems. The loss of homes, livestock, and pets really affected people. Emergency responders have also been affected by long working hours, the stress of responding to a severe disaster, and personal loss.

The Amazon forest’s species serve Western surgery and internal medicine in many ways. Extracts from its organisms can be used directly as drugs. For maladies ranging from nagging headaches to lethal contagions such as malaria, the rainforest medicines have provided modern society with a variety of cures and pain relievers. Finally, the rainforest plants provide aids for research. Certain plant compounds enable scientists to understand how cancer cells grow, while others serve as testing agents for potentially harmful food and drug products. These plants that serve as vital resources for the eradication of disease, are slowly dying from the forests fires. As a result, effective traditional health care systems, based on significant local knowledge of medicinal plants in the Amazon forest, are being threatened.

The future health and welfare of humanity will be determined, to a great extent, by the fate of the Amazon. There are no easy answers to the social and environmental crises facing the rainforest today. But one important step towards saving the rainforest is to increase public recognition of the importance of understanding the impacts of forest fires on global health and the importance of rainforest medicines in our modern pharmacopoeia.

About the author

My name is Rahba El-Amin, I am a fourth year medical student at the University of Khartoum in Sudan. I’m also a blogger, and contributing writer to an online magazine. I am very passionate about sharing knowledge through the art of storytelling and photography. This year I was chosen amongst British council’s top 100 young journalists, to represent my country at Reuters Headquarters in London. After attending the 72nd World Health Assembly as an IFMSA delegate this year, it was there that I first became passionate about climate change and its substantial impacts on human health.

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