Scientific Studies During Brazil’s Burning Season

In 1995 NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) assigned me to accompany the SCAR-B research team to Cuiaba, Brazil, during the burning season. NASA’s ozone satellite was not working, and my job was to measure the ozone layer through thick biomass smoke. During this 3-week campaign, I made many additional measurements and was surprised by the significant attenuation of solar UV-B caused by the smoke. I also noticed that many locals were experiencing respiratory distress, and, during a team meeting, I suggested that the incidence of infectious respiratory disease resulting from smoke inhalation could be exacerbated by sharply diminished UV-B that ordinarily kills airborne, infectious microbes.

In 1997, I drafted a letter to the journal Science that discussed the UV-B-respiratory disease hypothesis. The letter was sent to Brent Holben, Tom Eck and Brian Montgomery of GSFC and William Grant of NASA’s Langley Research Center, all of whom agreed to accompany the letter as co-authors. Science published our letter on 20 June 1997. This letter preceded an assignment by GSFC to return to Brazil during the 1997 burning season to extend the measurements I made in 1995 and to also conduct a study of airborne bacteria.

NASA had only one team in Brazil in 1997: my student assistant Bradley White and me. We made thousands of measurements of sunlight, the ozone layer, smoke, bacteria, fungi and a small garden we planted on day 1 during our 3-week stay at Alta Floresta and the Cristalino River. During a seminar for Alta Floresta physicians, a college student was assigned to determine the incidence of influenza during our stay. The hypothesis about enhanced respiratory disease exacerbated by diminished UV caused by thick smoke was supported by the student’s finding and our bacteria cultures (both bacteria and viruses are inactivated by UV), a result that I published in a letter to the journal Nature (20 Nov 1997).

I subsequently published a letter in Environmental Health Perspectives (2005) suggesting that avian influenza might be exacerbated by diminished UV-B caused by biomass smoke. Since this note received a number of citations in the scholarly literature, I assumed that better qualified researchers might follow up on the hypothesis. But that has apparently not happened, at least to the extent I had hoped. So I am returning to this topic in a new proposal. Meanwhile, my 1997 report to GSFC was never published, and the PDF is linked here (please allow several seconds for it to load): Mims-Brazil 1997


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