A recent study suggests that more people east of the Rocky Mountains are affected by smoke from wildfires than in the West. In the West, more large fires are seen. According to an estimate by epidemiologists at Colorado State University long-term exposure to wildfire smoke causes each year roughly 6,300 additional deaths. The highest number is found in the most populous states. Out of those extra deaths, 1,700 occurred in the West.
It has real health implications for those in the East as well. This smoke can travel from large, distant wildfires or could be from smaller local fires. Wildfire smoke carries dangerous pollutants. It travels into the lung tissue when inhaled, where it can enter the bloodstream. These pollutants can come from smoke, fossil fuel plants and cars and causes a health problem. The health issues include asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses. The Eastern United States generally experiences lower smoke concentrations than the West.
The study didn’t measure recent fire years, but the researchers said 2020 and 2021 may have been similar to or possibly worse than the 2017 and 2018 fire seasons. According to the study, the 2017 and 2018 fire season was devastating public health risks. It is easy to ignore the health implications associated with wildfire smoke traveling past the Rocky Mountains. People might not be aware that they are breathing in smoke. It may not look or smell like smoke, just hazy, so the human eyes and nose cannot identify it.
The researchers recommended paying attention to local air quality advisories or monitoring the air quality with appropriate apps and adjusting outdoor plans if air quality is poor. The combined risks of wildfire smoke and local ambient pollution are urgent health issues. The daily air pollution challenges are caused by power plants, industrial facilities, bus depots, major arterial highways and other infrastructure. All these take a cumulative toll on human health, which leads to frequent hospital visits.
Studies have shown that people of color and low-income residents are more exposed to higher outdoor, urban air pollution concentrations. The factors that cause inequality include the ability to relocate or remain indoors during extreme smoke events, access to air conditioning or filters and possible language barriers with smoke or air quality warnings. These barriers are evident in many low-income communities that experience an unequal health burden due to years of chronic exposure to air pollution.
According to a leading expert, the study is a significant improvement to previous wildfire research. It has opened doors to conduct further research to include temperature changes and dive deeper into the demographics of populations impacted. As the climate crisis intensifies, scientists say large wildfires will only strengthen and increase in frequency in the coming century. Better warning systems and monitoring air quality levels can reduce exposure and health risks. In the future, people will see more smoke. People should aim to reduce other sources of pollution and take action on climate change by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.