California Wildfire Smoke Study

Crystal Kalin

A recent study conducted on March 5th by researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego concluded that the fine particles in wildfire smoke can be several times more harmful to humans’ respiratory health than particulate matter from any other source including car exhaust.

Although there were many other topics discussed in the study, let’s first review essentially what the study was. The subject of the research focused on microscopic particles, commonly called PM2.5, which can travel very long distances. To conduct the study, Aguilera and Tom Corringham, both postdoctoral scholars and two of the study’s co-authors, looked at hospital admissions data over 14 years in Southern California and compared that to spikes in air pollution during strong wind events. They found that pollutants from wildfire smoke caused up to a 10% increase in hospital admissions.

So what exactly are PM2.5 particles you may be asking? These particles are roughly one-twentieth the diameter of a human hair and are among the main components of wildfire smoke. These dangerous particles that harm the heart, lungs, and other vital organs are able to bypass the nose and lungs, the body’s defense mechanisms, and make their way directly into the bloodstream. Because of this, they pose a major health risk to people who come in contact with them. Sheryl Magzamen, an associate professor at Colorado State University (who focuses on the health effects of wildfire smoke), was not involved in the study but says that the study is worrisome because there is very little people can do to limit smoke events.

Another problem is that any small fire will eventually ignite into a much much larger one. Fire is a necessary and normal process in many forests, is essential for getting rid of dead material, and necessary for getting new vegetation to grow. However, years of fire suppression have allowed unhealthy amounts of vegetation to accumulate on forest floors, providing unnatural amounts of fuel once fires start. Referencing the more than $10 billion lost in damages and efforts to manage California’s fires last season, Corringham says, “We’re pretty aware of the physical costs of wildfire, in terms of firefighting costs and damage to property 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.” He says the findings are very concerning because the more the climate warms, the more intense wildfires will become.

As of now, there is not a consensus as to exactly why wildfire PM2.5 is more harmful to humans than other sources of particulate pollution, but the study has proved that it is. If PM2.5 from wildfires is more dangerous to human lungs than air pollution, then the boundary for what is considered a safe level of PM2.5 should be based on what source the particle is coming from. This is especially important during the growing wildfire season or in places like California and other regions where most PM2.5 is expected to come from wildfires.

As conditions in California become hotter and dryer, researchers expect to see increased wildfire activity. This poses a huge concern for the people living in regions where wildfires are almost as common as rain. Although many are concerned for the future of air quality, some things seem to be looking up as current work is being done to improve air quality and public health programs and there are efforts to minimize global warming. Researchers say any work or efforts that can be done to try and reduce greenhouse emissions or stabilize the global climate will have significant benefits to both the environment and the community.