California forest fire pollution in 2020 is likely to offset decades of improved air quality

Forest fire

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It was a nightmarish fire season that California will soon forget.

As more than 9,000 wildfires raged in the landscape, a canopy of smoke engulfed much of the state and spread as far as Boston.

In total, more than 4.3 million acres will be burned and more than 30 people will be killed. The economic losses will amount to more than $ 19 billion.

But the damage caused by California’s wildfires season in 2020 is still the focus in some respects, especially when it comes to Air Pollution it generates.

In an analysis published this week in the annual air quality index, researchers found that forest fire smoke is likely to offset decades of state and federal efforts to combat pollution, at least temporarily.

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic took cars off the road and temporarily shut down some industries, particulate pollution was widely considered one of the the biggest threats to life expectancy – rose to one of the highest levels in decades in parts of California in 2020, according to the Institute for Energy Policy at the University of Chicago, which is preparing a report assessing how air pollution can be reduced life expectancy.

Nationally, 29 of the top 30 counties with the highest levels of particulate pollution this year were in California, the researchers found.

The report is the latest to highlight the dangerous health effects of forest fire smoke at a time when drought and climate change are fueling extreme behavior in forest fires. Now that the country is entering what is expected to be another major season of forest fires, researchers say the effects of these natural disasters on human health are astounding.

“Places that experience frequent or more frequent forest fires will have higher levels of air pollution, not just for a few days or weeks, but this could affect the annual level of exposure,” said Christa Hasenkopf, director of air quality programs at the University of Chicago Institute. “This can raise this average to dangerous and unhealthy levels that really affect people’s health. When we think of forest fires, we think of short-term events – and hopefully they are – but they can have long-term consequences (given) your overall exposure to air pollution. “

Mariposa County, a sparsely populated county located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, usually enjoys cleaner air than much of the state. But in 2020, he led the nation to average annual concentrations of fine dust particles of 22.6 micrograms per cubic meter – more than four times the recommended guidelines of the World Health Organization. Similarly, more than half of all counties in California have experienced their worst air pollution since satellite measurements began collecting data in 1998.

If the concentrations of particulate matter in Mariposa County observed in 2020 are maintained, the life of the average resident will be shortened by 1.7 years, according to the report. This is compared to the fact that residents constantly breathe air in accordance with widely accepted international health guidelines.

In Tulare County, levels of fine dust were twice as high as the national average in 2020, as satellite imagery captured a huge circle of KNP smoke and windy fires surrounding the cities of Visalia and Porterville.

Donella Moberg, a longtime Lindsay resident with emphysema, is accustomed to enduring air pollution from every corner of San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield and Fresno. However, in 2020, with many people stranded at home due to the pandemic, she remembers that the sky was much clearer than normal.

By the fall, conditions had changed dramatically with forest fires.

Moberg, 67, recalls that the fog was so thick that he could not see the hill six blocks from his home. The smoke over the valley obscured the stars at night and made the sun look blood-orange during the day. And the abundance of ash falling from the sky regularly covered cars on the street.

For weeks, she did not leave the house except to shop for groceries or church services and doctor’s appointments.

“The sky was the color of clay and made the sun a fun color – it didn’t look normal,” Moberg said. “You can always tell if it’s safe to go out or not just by looking at the sun.

Between 1970 and 2020, five decades after the Clean Air Act was passed, the United States has seen tremendous progress in reducing air pollution, including a 66.9% reduction in fine dust particles, a pollutant that increases the chances of lung disease. , heart attack and stroke, according to the report.

These reductions have extended the lives of most Americans, including those in Los Angeles County, where particulate matter levels have been halved, extending Angelino’s life expectancy by 1.3 years, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago.

In recent years, however, forest fire smoke has accounted for up to half of all particulate matter pollution in the western United States.

Fine dust particles are considered one of the main threats to public health. When inhaled, these microscopic particles – 30 times smaller than human hair – can penetrate deep into the lungs and blood, increasing the likelihood of lung disease and potentially causing a heart attack or stroke.

Recent research shows that fine dust particles generated by forest fires are much more dangerous than other sources of combustion, such as vehicle exhaust or gas-fired power plants.

“When you have a wildfire, they burn everything,” said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard School of Public Health. “They set fire to cars, burn buildings, burn plastic. So it’s not just the level of (dust pollution), which gets really high, but the kind of (that pollution) you breathe. “

Pollution from forest fires in 2020 is likely to have led to 1,200 to 3,000 premature deaths for adults over the age of 65, according to Stanford University estimates.

In September 2021, the World Health Organization lowered its recommended target of 10 micrograms of dust particles per cubic meter to 5, a revision, according to scientists, signals that lower levels are harmful to human health. According to updated guidelines, nearly 93% of people in the United States lived in counties with unhealthy levels of pollution in 2020, including the entire population of California.

In addition to forest fires, fine dust particles are also produced from emissions from automotive exhaust pipes and chimneys from fossil fuel power plants. Problems with this pollution are compounded by California’s mountainous terrain, which captures air pollution and allows it to persist, especially in inland valleys that are beyond the reach of the ocean breeze.

But the growing threat of forest fires remains in the minds of many.

Against the background of the third year of drought, much of the San Joaquin Valley is prepared Forest fires. All you need is lightning, a spark from a power line or a carelessly discarded cigarette.

Moberg, who lives in the shade of hills covered with dry bushes, is aware of the delicate balance. But she can’t do much but pray for the fire and the smoke not to return.

“We’re always like, ‘Please don’t light up, hills.'”


Exposure to smoke from forest fires has a negative impact on the health of dairy cows


2022 Los Angeles Times.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Quote: California Forest Fire Pollution in 2020 Likely to Compensate for Decades of Air Quality Improvement (2022, June 20) Extracted on June 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022- 06-pollution-california-wildfires-offset-decades.html

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