If you watch the news, you've probably noticed that massive wildfires have been making more and more headlines. Over the past 10 years, there have been an average of over 7 million acres burned annually. In 2018 alone, 8.8 million acres were burned nationwide, the sixth-largest figure on record, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Unfortunately, experts say this upward trend is likely to continue.
According to the US EPA Air Pollutant Emissions Trends Data, wildfires contribute to approximately 15 percent of total US particle emissions each year, which is more than emissions from power plants and transportation combined. As the fires grow larger and more frequent, many dangerous emissions, referred to as particulate matter (PM), are released into the air. These teeny, tiny particles measure about 1/50 the diameter of a grain of sand. They are so small that they are inhaled into the tiny air sacs of the lung and can even cross over into your bloodstream, increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack. Even people with healthy lungs can feel respiratory distress and suffer coughing fits and shortness of breath.
"Burning objects generate a variety of noxious chemicals that can affect our lungs," American Lung Association's volunteer air quality expert Dr. Christman explained. "Carbon monoxide can take the place of oxygen on hemoglobin and starve your tissues from getting sufficient oxygen to survive. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are highly reactive molecules that dissolve in airway lining fluids and damage sensitive lung tissue, causing airway narrowing and lung injury. If the wildfire spreads to involve houses, which are filled with synthetic carpets and plastics, the burning fumes can contain other highly reactive materials such as acrolein, a known toxin that causes acute lung injury."
This is a scary reality for over 25 million people living in close proximity to recent wildfires, but recent studies have found that the impact may be much more widespread.
Depending on the prevailing winds, these pollutants can be carried large distances away, potentially affecting the air in faraway cities and towns. Last year's Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park is a perfect example of this phenomenon: the fire's uncontrolled blaze caused billowing smoke that in turn created unhealthy air quality over 100 miles away. Within the last few years we have seen a major deterioration in air quality, particularly in California and Washington state, related to wildfire generated air pollution.
"On a global level it is estimated that there are more than 300,000 premature deaths attributable to wildfire smoke," said Dr. Christman. "The entire spectrum of our population can be affected, but anyone with vulnerable lungs is particularly at risk. This includes babies, and patients with asthma, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, lung cancer and heart disease."
So, what can we do to protect ourselves and stop this devastation?
It is no secret what is fueling these wildfires. The progressive effects of climate change create a longer growing season so the underbrush in the forests becomes more abundant. Couple that with increased droughts and higher temperature, and any spark from machinery, a lightning strike, or a number of man-made sources can result in a devastating wildfire that burns many acres of land. The chemical emissions released from the fires then further contribute to climate change.
That is why policy changes need to be made to stop the cycle and address the climate change crisis. Elected officials must continue to work to reduce air pollution and to protect our health from the impacts of wildfires. Sign our petition now.
Additionally, check out these recommendations to learn how to protect yourself and your loved ones from wildfire smoke, no matter where you live.
Do you have a wildfire story? We want to hear from you! Share your story today.
Blog last updated: April 13, 2020