Increasingly ferocious wildfires in the western US are taking a devastating toll on the region’s air quality, with wildfire smoke now accounting for half of all air pollution during the worst wildfire years, according to a new study.
Scientists from Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, found that toxic plumes of smoke, which can blanket western states for weeks when wildfires are raging, are reversing decades of gains in cutting air pollution. While heat-related deaths have previously been predicted as the worst consequence of the climate crisis, researchers say that air pollution caused by smoke could be just as deadly.
“For a lot of people in this country wildfires are going to be the way they experience climate change,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth science at Stanford and one of the study’s authors. “The contribution of wildfires to poor air quality has roughly doubled in the last 15 years in the west.”
Air pollution from fine particles, known as PM2.5s, was already known to take four months off the lifespan of the average American. And health researchers are just beginning to understand the harrowing health consequences added by the increasing smoke exposure for broad swaths of the US population.
Wildfire seasons have become increasingly brutal in the American west, exacerbated by the climate crisis. The firestorms of 2020 were among the worst in recorded history, with 31 people killed, 10,000 buildings destroyed or damaged and more than 4m acres burned in California alone. Huge swaths of Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona were scorched as well.
After California’s residents endured a month of orange-brown air filled with dangerous tiny particles, another set of Stanford researchers tracked dramatic increases in hospitalizations for conditions including strokes, heart attacks and asthma.
Bibek Paudel, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford’s asthma clinic, found that hospitalizations for strokes and related conditions increased by 60% in the five weeks after fires caused by lightning strikes began sending smoke around northern California last August. The number of pregnancies lost also doubled in the weeks after the fires – a startling finding that the researchers are still interpreting. Paudel also found significant increases in heart attacks and youth hospitalization for respiratory illness.
“I don’t think that people are aware of the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke,” said Mary Prunicki, the director of research for Stanford’s Sean N Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research.
For decades, air quality in the US has been improving due to reductions in pollution from cars and factories, mandated by the Clean Air Act. But over the last 40 years, the amount of land burned in wildfires has quadrupled, Burke’s study found.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, combined data from satellite images of smoke plumes with…
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