The coronavirus pandemic and raging wildfires were two heinous events of 2020. And in one of life’s unfair twists of evil synergy, a new study from Harvard says that smoke from West Coast wildfires increased the cases of COVID illnesses and deaths.
The study, published in the journal Science Advances, attributed 19,742 additional COVID cases — and 748 deaths — to last year’s heavy blanket of wildfire smoke in Oregon, California and Washington. Tiny particulate matter, aka PM 2.5, was the culprit. Wildfire smoke carries small pieces of ash full of zinc, nickel, iron and other stuff you don’t want to breathe in. Once these particles lodge in your lungs, you become more susceptible to all kinds of respiratory diseases, including the infamous star of 2020, COVID-19. And when these particles worm their way into your bloodstream, you might also suffer neurological and cardiovascular problems.
“We weren’t terribly surprised by the results as scientists,” said study co-author Kevin Josey, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But as humans, we are dismayed about the impacts.”
The study authors examined air quality records and satellite images from 92 counties in California, Washington and Oregon. They focused on the nine-month period from March 15 to December 16, 2020, calculating wildfire-related PM 2.5 exposure in each county. They then correlated increased PM 2.5 exposure with increased COVID-19 cases and deaths. The authors linked wildfire smoke with an 11.7% increase in cases. Deaths also went up by 8.4%.
The relationship was more striking in some places than others. For example, Whitman County, Washington and San Bernardino, California, saw an enormous increase of COVID-19 cases and deaths related to excessive PM 2.5 exposure.
And now it’s wildfire season again, and the Delta variant of COVID-19 is raging. The best defense? Get vaccinated. Minimize your smoke inhalation. Stay inside on the smokiest days. And prepare for more. By mid-century, we’ll likely be facing annual “smoke waves,” or periods of at least 48 hours where wildfires push PM 2.5 concentrations past the range of safely breathable air.
Lead image via Pixabay