Agricultural fires in Brazil harm infant health

Written by
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Michael Hotchkiss, Office of Communications
Jan. 25, 2017

Sugarcane growers across Brazil’s São Paulo state have long used controlled fires to clear agricultural debris from fields before harvest, helping to increase laborers’ productivity. Researchers at Princeton University and Duke University have pinpointed how air pollution from these fires negatively impacts infant health nearby. At the same time, they find that the health of those same infants likely benefits from the economic opportunities the fires bring to their parents.

The researchers gathered information from satellites, pollution monitors and birth records to untangle those competing influences and accurately measure the impact of pollution from the fires. They found that exposure to pollution from the fires in the last few months of gestation leads to earlier birth and smaller babies, and they found some evidence of increased fetal mortality. Conditions in early life, including in utero, have been shown to affect children’s long-term outcomes, not only in terms of health but also their educational and economic success.

The findings suggest that policymakers in Brazil and across the developing world should pay more attention to the negative health impact of pollution from fires that are often part of traditional farming techniques.

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