Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Wildfire Smoke Is More Toxic Than Other Forms of Air Pollution, Study Finds

Health + Wellness
Wildfire Smoke Is More Toxic Than Other Forms of Air Pollution, Study Finds
A woman walks along The Embarcadero under an orange smoke-filled sky in San Francisco, California on September 9, 2020. Brittany Hosea-Small / AFP / Getty Images

Smoke from wildfires may be more harmful to public health than other sources of particulate matter air pollution, according to a new study.

The research, published in Nature Communications on Friday, found that wildfire smoke could be up to 10 times more harmful than other sources of air pollution, such as from vehicles or industry.

"We know wildfires are going to become more extreme, due to climate change," Rosana Aguilera, study co-author and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told The Guardian. "And it's important that we start to reckon with the health effects of that."

The researchers examined hospital admission records in California between 1999 and 2012. They found that admissions for respiratory problems increased from around 1.3 percent to 10 percent following an uptick in wildfire-specific air pollution. The same amount of air pollution from other sources led to a smaller admissions increase, topping out around 1.3 percent.

This isn't the first study to suggest that wildfire smoke might be more harmful than other forms of air pollution, the authors noted. Animal studies have suggested the same thing.

Mary Prunicki, a Stanford air pollution researcher who was not part of the study, told The Guardian that evidence also suggested that wildfire smoke could exacerbate heart conditions and respiratory ailments.

She explained that since wildfires engulf homes and businesses, they emit fumes that contain metals, plastic and cleaning supplies. Large fires also suck smoke high into the atmosphere, where it lasts longer and combines with oxygen to become more dangerous.

"We're pretty aware of the physical costs of wildfire, in terms of firefighting costs and damage to property," Tom Corringham, a study co-author also at Scripps, told NPR. "But there's been a lot of work that has shown that the health impacts due to wildfire smoke are on the same order of magnitude, or possibly even greater, than the direct physical cost."

The study comes as this problem is only getting worse. While particulate matter air pollution has been decreasing across most of the U.S. thanks to stricter environmental regulations, that has not been the case in wildfire-prone areas, the study found. Wildfires will likely increase as long as the climate crisis persists. In 2020, California experienced six of its largest fires on record, the Los Angeles Times reported. Those fires choked the Western U.S. with smoke, in some places for weeks. An NPR analysis found that one in seven West Coast residents experienced at least one day of unhealthy air quality last year.

Unfortunately, wildfire smoke is not as easy to regulate as tailpipe or power-plant emissions. Corringham called for providing low-income households with money for air purifiers. But he also suggested a longer-term solution.

"Anything we can do today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the global climate system will have significant benefits," he told NPR.

David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less
An Amazon.com Inc. worker walks past a row of vans outside a distribution facility on Feb. 2, 2021 in Hawthorne, California. PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.

Read More Show Less
Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab's sample of the whitest paint on record. Purdue University / Jared Pike

Scientists at the University of Purdue have developed the whitest and coolest paint on record.

Read More Show Less

Less than three years after California governor Jerry Brown said the state would launch "our own damn satellite" to track pollution in the face of the Trump administration's climate denial, California, NASA, and a constellation of private companies, nonprofits, and foundations are teaming up to do just that.

Read More Show Less