WILDFIRES PRODUCED HALF OF POLLUTION IN U.S. WEST COAST
Wildfire smoke accounted for up to half of all health-damaging small particle air pollution in the western US in recent years as warming temperatures fueled more destructive blazes, according to a study released, Matthew Brown reported for the Associated Press (AP).
Even as pollution emissions declined from other sources including vehicle exhaust and power plants, the amount from fires increased sharply, said researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego.
The findings underscore the growing public health threat posed by climate change as it contributes to catastrophic wildfires such as those that charred huge areas of California and the Pacific Northwest in 2020. Nationwide, wildfires were the source of up to 25% of small particle pollution in some years, the researchers said.
“From a climate perspective, wildfires should be the first things on our minds for many of us in the US,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford and lead author of the study.
“Most people do not see sea-level rise. Most people do not ever see hurricanes. Many, many people will see wildfire smoke from climate change,” Burke added. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
An AP analysis of data from government monitoring stations found that at least 38 million people in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana were exposed to unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke for at least five days in 2020. Major cities in Oregon suffered the highest pollution levels they had ever recorded.
Smoke particles from those wildfires were blamed for health problems ranging from difficulty breathing to a projected spike in premature deaths, according to health authorities and researchers.
Fires across the West emitted more than a million tons of particulate pollution in 2012, 2015 and 2017, and almost as much in 2018. Scientists studying long-term health problems have found correlations between smoke exposure and decreased lung function, weakened immune systems and higher rates of flu.
The new study matches up with previous research documenting the increasing proportion of pollution that comes from wildfire smoke, said Dan Jaffe, a wildfire pollution expert at the University of Washington. Jaffe added that it also raises significant questions about how to better manage forests and the role that prescribed burns might play.
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