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Researchers say wildfire smoke is reversing years of air pollution progress

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Posted at 1:30 PM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 15:30:56-05

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Record-setting wildfires are becoming a regular occurrence in the Western United States. It's a sobering trend that poses a threat to people across the country, as hazardous smoke pollutes the air.

“Fires burn in California, or in Nevada and Arizona, and prevailing winds carry that smoke as far as the Eastern Seaboard. And it can cause measurable changes in PM2.5 concentrations, very far away," explained Michael Wara, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Particulate matter 2.5 is a toxic pollutant caused by wildfires and other emissions sources. The microscopic particles are so small they can penetrate deep into a person's lungs and enter the bloodstream, increasing the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Wara says the Clean Air Act of 1990 spurred a nationwide effort to combat this pollution, reducing emissions from sources like factories and cars.

And while enormous progress has been made in the last 30 years, Wara says wildfires are putting that in jeopardy.

“What’s happening in the Western United States over the last decade is a reversal of that progress. The air is actually getting dirtier, and that’s really important because this kind of pollution kills large numbers of people," said Wara.

In a recently published paper, Wara and a team of researchers examined the changing risk and societal burden of wildfire in the United States. They say wildfire smoke will be one of the most widely felt health impacts of climate change throughout the country, but U.S. clean air regulations are not equipped to deal with it.

"One of the things about the Clean Air Act that is a little odd is traditionally prescribed fire, which is the cheapest way to deal with fuels, is treated as an air pollution source that is subject to the law. Whereas wildfire is treated kind of as an act of God, that no one is responsible for," Wara said.

He says reversing progress on air pollution puts the health of millions at risk.

“Likely making large numbers of seniors citizens sick. It’s also likely making large numbers of kids sick," said Wara.

Researchers at the University of California-Irvine examined economic losses from the 2018 California wildfires. Damage to homes and buildings accounted for $27.7 billion in losses; costs associated with the health effects of air pollution surpassed $32 billion.

Wara says year-round fuel management will be a critical strategy in reducing the number of catastrophic wildfires. Through prescribed burns, firefighters remove excess vegetation, thinning forested areas with chainsaws or heavy equipment.

“A prescribed fire is a way to avoid a wildfire. It’s like choosing the battlefield that we fight fire on. If we let nature choose, we’re going to lose," Wara said.

Wara also says funding is needed to protect the most vulnerable, investing in PPE and air filters in schools and senior living homes. He also believes we need more education and awareness on the serious health hazards of wildfire smoke.

Northern California resident Charles Gragg learned about the dangers firsthand during the 2020 wildfires. For weeks, smoke lingered around his home.

“After a couple of weeks of being in proximity of that fire, I had an episode where I woke up one night and couldn’t breathe," said Gragg.

Diagnosed with COPD three years ago, Gragg says his chronic lung condition had been mild up until then.

“I realized my oxygen was in the low 80 percent, which is not good. Normally, doctors don’t want your oxygen to drop below 90 percent," said Gragg. "I was literally gasping for air.”

He spent several days at the hospital and says the damage to his health from the smoke can never be fully reversed.

“I’ve got air purifiers in four rooms of my house now, and they run 24/7," said Gragg. “I downloaded an app and monitor the air daily. I never worried about that before, but you’ve just got to be cognizant of what’s going on around you and know what’s going on.”

Wara says stories like this are becoming more common, “We need to invest in that because the unfortunate reality is this problem is not going to go away anytime soon.”