Smoke From Wildfires in the West Harms More People in the East, Study Finds

Health + Wellness
The Statue of Liberty sits behind a cloud of haze from wildfire smoke.

The Statue of Liberty sits behind a cloud of haze from wildfire smoke on July 20, 2021, as New York City had its worst air quality day in 14 years. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Smoke from wildfires burning across the American West causes greater health damage east of the Rockies than to their west, a new study shows.

About three-quarters of deaths and asthma visits to emergency departments related to smoke over the past decade have occurred in the East because of higher population densities.

“Smoke is not just a western problem,” Katelyn O’Dell, lead author of the study, told The Washington Post. Wildfire smoke includes numerous pollutants, and the scientists looked specifically at the harms caused by fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, which gets deep into lungs and worsens and leads to myriad health problems.

The research underlines the widespread harms caused by wildfires, which are made worse by human-caused climate change, despite their localized acute destruction.

As reported by The Washington Post:

“We have decades of research and have shown air pollution wreaks havoc on our bodies. I think we should be worried about breathing in wildfire smoke and the effects on our overall health, including cardiopulmonary adverse health effects,” said Erin Landguth, who studies the effects of wildfire smoke on respiratory health at the University of Montana and was not involved in the study.

The perils of wildfire smoke are relatively well-explored in the West, where skies are regularly shrouded in a haze during fire season. Landguth’s research found that smoke from wildfires in Montana can increase influenza cases months later in the state. Another recent study showed that fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke was linked to an increase in covid-19 cases in California and Washington state.

As western fire seasons have intensified in recent decades, the eastern half of the country has increasingly felt their effects, too.

On July 20, major cities including Washington, Baltimore, Boston and New York were affected by the massive billowing plumes stretching across the country. New York endured its worst air quality in 14 years.

For a deeper dive:

The Washington Post, CNN; Climate Signals background: Wildfires

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