When the World Health Organization called environmental health scientist Michael Brauer, he knew what they wanted had something to do with the smoke blanketing large areas of Southeast Asia.
Two days later, the air pollution specialist was in Malaysia dealing with health issues caused by forest fires burning out of control in neighbouring Indonesia.
What he found was more an environmental crisis than a health emergency.
His findings will be the subject of a seminar called "Environmental Crisis: Indonesian forest fires and air pollution in Southeast Asia" taking place November 13 from 12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m. in Woodward IRC lecture hall 5.
"The environment has become so stressed in Southeast Asia that one incident can push the whole system out of control," he says. "This experience reinforced for me that we can't degrade the environment and not expect a crisis."
Forest fires are lit throughout Indonesia every year to clear land for plantations. But this year was different.
A delayed monsoon and existing drought conditions, blamed by locals on the El Niño phenomenon, resulted in the fires blazing out of control. Over 500,000 hectares of forest had been burning since early June, with smoke becoming a critical problem in September.
Brauer, an associate professor in the Dept. of Medicine, spent a week in Malaysia acting as technical adviser to the country's health ministry and Institute of Medical Research. He co-ordinated efforts to combat the air pollution, helped identify local resources and worked with researchers to assess health damage and determine protection measures.
Clinic visits for respiratory complaints had tripled since the fires began, says Brauer. Infants, asthmatics and others with pre-existing lung or heart conditions were the most affected.
Medical resources were able to handle the influx, Brauer says, since the problems, though plentiful were not critical.
Although some rain did fall the day he arrived, Brauer says the visibility remained reduced to several hundred metres. People wore masks outside and children were kept home from school when the smoke was at its worst.
"One of the most difficult aspects was psychological," says Brauer, who holds a joint appointment in the Occupational Hygiene Programme. "There was no escape from the smoke -- no place to run."
The concentration and toxicity of the smoke this year was similar to previous years, however, the duration of the pollution and the spread over huge densely populated regions made the situation unprecedented, he says.
Brauer feels that unless the extent of the fires' health impact is defined, economics will dictate they continue unregulated.
Among his recommendations to the Malaysian government are that health officials measure the effectiveness of protection practices such as wearing masks or staying indoors. He has also initiated studies assessing the health impacts of the smoke pollution.
For further information on the seminar, call Eric Hamilton of the Occupational Hygiene Programme at 604-822-9861.