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Wildfire Smoke Is Erasing Gains From Decades of Cleaner Air

Ok, this summer have you not been impacted by wildfire smoke? Here's the deal. There's almost nothing you can do to meaningfully move the dial on global warming.


For example, cars represent 12% of global emissions. Let's assume that everyone immediately started driving EV cars (& we had unlimited Lithium supplies to produce plus other precious metals) and the electricity to charge those was carbon-free. Better still let's assume everyone got rid of their cars and walked. It would make zero difference.


On the other hand, we can win the battle against wildfires. We devote few resources to early detection and jumping on these with equipment/manpower before they spread and get out of control. We should be spending serious money on this. We're not.


Wildfire Smoke Is Erasing Gains From Decades of Cleaner Air

Health effects from smoke are felt across the U.S. as wildfires grow

New York City reported the planet’s worst air quality for several days in early June because of smoke from Canadian wildfires.

New York City reported the planet’s worst air quality for several days in early June because of smoke from Canadian wildfires. JASHIM SALAM/ZUMA PRESS

By Eric Niiler, WSJ

Updated Sept. 20, 2023 12:29 pm ET


Pollution from recent wildfires has reduced—or in some states eliminated—decades of improvements in air quality across a swath of the U.S.


The air above the country has become significantly healthier since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which limited industrial pollutants and vehicle tailpipe emissions. But increasing pollution from wildfire smoke has reversed or stalled air-quality improvements in 41 of 48 states, according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.


“It was surprising to us that many more states in the country were significantly influenced by wildfire smoke,” said Marshall Burke, an author of the study and an associate professor of sustainability at Stanford University. “The influence is larger in the West, but it’s still detectable throughout a lot of the country, throughout a lot of the Midwest, the South and the East.”


Smoke from wildfires has reduced decades of improvements in air quality in many states.



In 41 states, wildfire smoke has erased 25%—or about four years—of the air-quality progress made in previous decades. Western states such as Oregon, Washington and California have suffered the most.


The new study found that small airborne particles were declining before 2016 in all but seven states in the contiguous U.S.


Wildfires are just one source of small particles of airborne pollution, known as PM2.5, for particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size. In comparison, a human hair is 20 to 30 times larger in diameter, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Other sources of particulate matter include fossil-fuel-burning power plants, industrial facilities, vehicle tailpipe exhaust and dust from farmers’ fields.


Particles from these emissions pass through the body’s defenses and bury themselves deep in the lungs, where they can cause a variety of acute and chronic health problems, especially for vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions.


To separate wildfires from other sources of particulate pollution, the researchers from Stanford and Harvard universities devised a method of identifying wildfire particles using satellite imagery to trace the path of the smoke. They combined this information with data from nearly 2,500 ground-based air-pollution sensors collected by the EPA from 2000 to 2022.


Burke noted that the study didn’t include data from this year, when hundreds of Canadian wildfires poured smoke across much of the Northeast and Midwest for many weeks. In early June, New York City for several days reported the planet’s worst air quality at that time as a result of the fires, while Chicago and Detroit experienced hazardous conditions a few weeks later.



Adding data from this year’s Canadian fires “would just make our results stronger,” Burke said.


In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published two studies about the health impacts of the 2023 wildfires, which led to a spike in people with asthma visiting emergency rooms, especially in the New York area. Nationwide, hospital visits were up 17% during the worst of the smoke between April and August, according to data from 4,000 hospitals surveyed by the CDC.


Wildfire smoke is being linked to other health problems as well. Smoke from California wildfires coincided with an 18% to 22% spike in cases of invasive fungal infections in 22 hospitals across the state, according to a May study published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health. Researchers found that fungal spores in the soils of California are lofted into the air by wildfires. When inhaled, the spores can lead to Valley fever, an infection that can cause respiratory symptoms including cough, fever, chest pain and tiredness.


The spread of invasive grasses in places such as Hawaii and the Western U.S. is contributing to more frequent wildfires. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains why and explores what’s being done to curb their spread. Photo illustration: David Fang

Controlling wildfire smoke will be challenging in coming years, as warming atmospheric temperatures are expected to result in drier soil conditions, increasing periods of drought and more pests that damage trees, all of which contribute to wildfires.


At the same time, inadequate forest-management practices and increasing human development in forested areas are making fires bigger, more intense and more likely to occur, according to Michael Jerrett, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA.


Jerrett said the new study follows similar research he has pursued in California.


“The thoroughness of the study is one of its strengths,” said Jerrett, who wasn’t part of the study. “It’s an important point that they’re making that it’s not just a Western U.S. problem.”


Vijay Limaye, a climate and health scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the study might serve as a wake-up call for people who might have dismissed wildfire smoke as just a short-term health problem. He said officials need to upgrade early warning systems and air-quality monitoring so that residents can more easily know whether they need to limit their time outdoors.


“There is essentially no safe level of exposure to wildfire smoke,” Limaye said.


Write to Eric Niiler at eric.niiler@wsj.com

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