New research published in the journal Nature Communications has revealed that pollution caused by wildfires is more harmful to humans than than poor air quality caused by car exhaust. The study, conducted by researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California in San Diego, was achieved through an analysis of health records.
The study follows increasing wildfire events in the United States. Last year, many western states experienced fires, with heavy smoke clouding major cities. In some areas, residents were warned against stepping outside their homes to avoid possible health risks.
The researchers looked at health records over the past 14 years and determined that there was a 10% spike in hospital admissions in Southern California during wildfire breakouts. According to Tom Corringham, one of the authors of the study, the economic impacts of wildfires are typically highlighted, with little focus on health impacts that are usually of the same magnitude.
“We’re pretty aware of the physical costs of wildfire, in terms of firefighting costs and damage to property,” Corringham said. “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.”
In the study, researchers focused on PM2.5, which are very common in wildfire smoke. These microscopic particles are very small and can bypass the human body’s security systems. When this happens, they make their way into the lungs and the bloodstream. There are various health risks that have been associated with these particles, including increased risk of respiratory problems, heart attacks and strokes.
“We’ve seen it getting much worse in the last decade,” Corringham said of the wildfires. “Anything we can do today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the global climate system will have significant benefits.”
A separate study on air quality on the West Coast found that one in every seven residents experienced at least one day in unhealthy air conditions last year due to wildfires.
Image via Peter Buschmann / USDA