California’s Choking Smoke

by Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

This year’s nightmare wildfire season in California has burned more than 3.7 million acres across the state since the beginning of the year. The fires have also produced some of the worst smoke the state has seen. Smoke from the wildfires has the same dangerous particulate matter as tailpipe exhaust and has the same harmful health impacts, like increasing the risk of asthma and harming the body’s immune system. 

The smoke is especially bad in the Central Valley, where the air quality is already bad from highways, industry and agriculture, putting kids in the region at higher risk for long-term harm to their health. 

Why This Matters: The Central Valley is home for many migrant and low-income communities and is already experiencing the compounding impacts of the climate crisis. The region has worse asthma rates than the state average because of the poor air quality even when fires aren’t burning.

This year’s wildfire smoke drove the air quality index well above unhealthy numbers for much of the fall, exacerbating health conditions. The New York Times chronicled the instances of children and their families impacted by poor air quality, from not being able to ride bikes to intense asthma attacks that could only be calmed with steroids. 

The western US is getting hotter and drier as a result of climate change, and 18 of the largest fires in California have burned in the past 20 years. The increasing heat and smoke mean more days of dangerous air quality and subsequent health impacts. 

Smoke Impacts Could Be Long Term: New research from Stanford University suggests that smoke could also alter the immune system at the genetic level. Even short exposure to the smoke changed genes that inform the body’s response to allergens. 

“It could have irreversible consequences,” Dr. Kari Nadeau, a professor of medicine at Stanford who specializes in pediatric allergies and asthma told the New York Times.

Her work has also found that smoke from prescribed burns wasn’t as bad for peoples’ health as wildfire smoke. 

Air Quality Attacked for Past Four Years: The Trump administration rolled back a laundry list of environmental protections, but regulations around air quality and pollution were the worst hit. The outgoing administration reversed 27 rules protecting Americans’ basic right to clean air, including a rollback on pollution from cars and ending the requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions. The incoming Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has the opportunity to reinstate and bolster protections for the air we breathe.

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