Millions of Americans are routinely exposed to the unhealthy fumes of wildfires that drift thousands of miles across the country, scientists warn.
Wildfires release soot and ash into the atmosphere, which carry tiny particles that can be inhaled by people miles away, exacerbating a variety of health conditions. The number of people in the United States exposed to unhealthy levels of these particulates from wildfires at least one day a year has increased 27-fold over the past decade, and potentially 25 million more in 2020 alone. A new study found that you are breathing toxic air. Ignite.
Severe pockets of unhealthy air are emerging, primarily in the western United States, and are a staging area for wildfires, fueled by years of fire suppression and global warming, causing forests to stagnate. is ready to burn. Six of his seven largest wildfires in recorded California history have occurred since 2020.
Wildfire smoke can lead to school closures, flight delays and even cancellations of cycling races and Pearl Jam concerts. But its most pervasive impact will be a regression in air quality that has hardly been seen since the advent of the Clean Air Act in 1970, and the amount of time needed to rid many polluted U.S. cities of dangerous and suffocating smog conditions. It was helpful.
Marshall Burke, Stanford University scientist and co-author of the study published in Environmental Science and Technology, said:
“Wildfire smoke has increased dramatically as air pollution, and in some areas the effects of Clean Air Acts have completely reversed. , was not designed to deal with this, it’s a worrying issue.”
The new study is based on a model that calculates how wildfire smoke raised background pollution levels across the United States. Measures the presence of PM2.5are tiny particles about 1/30 the width of a human hair that travel through the air and become buried deep in the lungs when inhaled.
Wildfire smoke added about 5 micrograms of these particles to locations in the western United States on average. This includes cars, trucks, and power plants.
Unlike these other sources, which are regulated by the government, wildfire smoke is less predictable, far-reaching, more egalitarian, and hits not only the wealthy, white people, but also nearby highways and It also affects poor people of color who are disproportionately exposed to pollution from factories. .
“Wildfires produce an amazing amount of particulates that, unlike other pollution, can travel thousands of miles,” Burke said. Smoke from wildfires has caused some of the worst air quality in the world.
Ten years ago, less than 500,000 people in the United States were exposed to an Air Quality Index of 100 or more due to levels of smoke considered unhealthy. Currently, according to Burke, 5 million Americans live at least one day a year in an area of this level.
“If you don’t live near a highway or power station, your air quality is likely to be fairly good, but wildfire smoke intrusion is changing that, and there is evidence that this will increase.” “Honestly, it was amazing to see how quickly these extreme exposures rose.”
The dangers posed by wildfire smoke are of increasing concern to experts in various parts of the world. He had the highest wildfire emissions in Europe in 15 years, as a result of massive wildfires in Spain, France and Portugal over the summer. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the likelihood of devastating wildfires around the world will increase by 30% by the end of the century, even with rapid cuts in greenhouse gases. increase.
“As the planet warms, we expect to see more wildfires and associated air pollution, even under low emissions scenarios. It will also affect ecosystems because it will increase,” said Petteri Taalas, Executive Director of the World Meteorological Organization.
“We saw this during this year’s heatwaves in Europe and China, where steady high atmospheric conditions, sunlight and low wind speeds contributed to high pollution levels.”
Studies show that wildfire smoke is associated with exacerbation of several conditions. Severe wildfires in California in 2020 caused people to inhale smoke, increasing the risk of heart attacks by up to 70%, a study found, and the smoke killed an estimated 3,000 people over the age of 65.
Another study published in May found that people who lived within 31 miles (50 kilometers) of wildfires in the past 10 years had a 10% higher incidence of brain tumors than those who lived farther away. 5% more likely to develop lung cancer.
On the other hand, inhaling wildfire smoke during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, further worsening outcomes for those infected with Covid-19. Harvard University professor Francesca Dominici, who led the study on the link between wildfire smoke and the novel coronavirus, said Burke’s new research was “well-validated” and an “interesting area of research.” .
“The results are interesting and alarming,” Dominici said, adding that the prime minister had “urgent evidence”.2.5 Particles from smoke are more toxic than particles from other sources.
George Thurston, an environmental health scientist at New York University School of Medicine, said there is still much to learn about the effects of wildfire smoke, and some research suggests that burning fossil fuels is actually more harmful. But the new study is a “significant addition” to wildfire smoke exposure estimates.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has exempted these fires from air quality standards, so studies like this are needed to assess how big a risk this is,” Thurston said. “This kind of work will help solve when new standards are needed.”
Burke said the smoke threat became apparent to many in California in 2020 when the San Francisco Bay Area skies turned orange. Some of the richest regions in the world suffer from poor indoor air quality due to smoke, which is only mitigated by air filtration.
“The sun never came up in the Bay Area. It made me realize that it’s a different era we’re living in,” Burke said. I thought I was safe inside, but the health guidance is poor.In my own home, I closed all the windows and doors, but when I got the monitor, the indoor air quality was terrible. I realized that.”
Drastic reductions in greenhouse gases, better management of forests where fuel is thinned or burned, and better guidance to households will all be needed to improve the situation, Burke said. “We shouldn’t think about wildfires in terms of how many people were exposed to pollution, not just how many homes were burned down, because there are big impacts that we don’t think about,” he said.