23/01/2018 Environment

Smoke of Amazon forest fires can cause cancer

Toxin-loaded particles released during forest fires in the Amazon rainforest, if unintentionally inhaled for a long period of time, can cause oxidative stress of the cells and irreversible genetic damage, resulting even in lung cancer.



The discovery is the result of a study conducted by researchers at the University of São Paulo (USP), the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), the Federal University of Rondônia (UNIR) and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, based on the doctoral thesis of biologist Cheryl de Oliveira Adams, from the University of São Paulo.

The team collected samples of fine particulate matter in Porto Velho, capital of the state of Rondônia, one of the areas most affected by forest fires in Brazil's Amazon rainforest region, which comprises another eight states, covering an area of 5.033.072 square kilometers, accounting for 61% of  Brazil's national territory.

To understand how contamination occurs, the researchers exposed a line of lung cells to particles composed of toxic material in laboratory, in a concentration similar to those found in the Amazon forest fires, and analyzed the interactions using advanced biochemical techniques.

The analyzes confirmed that the DNA damage can be severe to a point in which the cell starts to reproduce uncontrollably, evolving to a lung cancer.




According to researcher Sandra Hacon, from the National School of Public Health, for the first time it was possible to demonstrate that forest fires particles get into the alveoli and cause genetic damage that can lead to lung cancer.

Sandra Hacon and researcher Christovam Barcellos coordinate the Climate and Health project, part of Climate Net, a research program on the effects of forest fires in climate changes.  The study was published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Hacon said that some measures can be taken by environmental and health authorities, to avoid the aggravation of respiratory diseases in the population exposed to the fires' smoke.

“It is a matter of common sense. It makes no sense to go on with the fires. The situation was under control, but there was a sharp increase over the past three years. An alternative is that the municipal departments of health create a respiratory disease surveillance system, to help the population of the cities where fires have been happening systematically".




In the months of August, September and October the fires outbreak spreads a cloud of toxic smoke on the Amazon region. The most vulnerable population are children and the elderly.

According to Sandra Hacon, children under five years old, hobbled by the impact of particles with carcinogenic components, develop respiratory allergies, which hampers the school learning. The hardest hit are mainly low-income families, who are in risk areas without the alternative of leaving.

Data from the Fires Program, of the National Institute for Space Research, indicate that in 2017 more than 275,000 fires occurred nationwide, of which more than 132,000 happened in the Amazonian states.