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California’s wildfire smoke crosses the United States on the jet stream in 2017. Image: NASA
As wildfires rage across the Western United States each summer and fall, the immediate headlines of these disasters focus on the destruction and displacement they cause. However, as we’ve seen this summer, states like California and Colorado have been engulfed by wildfire smoke that’s subsequently spread across the rest of the country. Yet we know relatively little about how prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke affects human health.
As the BBC recently reported, smoke from burning forests and peat can linger in the atmosphere for weeks, traveling thousands of miles and harming the health of populations living far away.
Why This Matters: Just like with the mental health effects that afflict people recovering from natural disasters, we must also look more closely into the longterm health consequences posed by exposure to wildfire smoke. In fact, the NIH estimates that wildfire smoke causes 339,000 premature deaths every year and BBC’s reporting noted that it could also be shortening life expectancies for populations that experience fire seasons regularly.
Dangers of Wildfire Smoke: Wildfire smoke isn’t a uniform substance. Firstly it depends on what’s burning (forests, grass, shrubland etc.), how hot the fire is, as well as a person’s distance from the source of the smoke. As Luke Montrose, assistant professor of Community and Environmental Health at Boise State, explained, “The distance affects the ability of smoke to “age,” meaning to be acted upon by the sun and other chemicals in the air as it travels. Aging can make it more toxic. Importantly, large particles like what most people think of as ash do not typically travel that far from the fire, but small particles, or aerosols, can travel across continents.”
The most prevalent pollutant by mass is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, roughly 50 times smaller than a grain of sand. Its prevalence is one reason health authorities issue air quality warnings using PM2.5 as the metric.
A Lingering Issue: The BBC also noted that wildfire smoke can hang in the atmosphere for days, weeks or even months depending on the duration of the wildfires causing it. This is in part because the superheated smoke and ash rising into the air can trigger pyrocumulonimbus events, or fire-induced thunderstorms.
These thunderstorms form at least 10 miles (16 km) above the ground in the stratosphere where they’re moved by the winds and weather in the jetstream, allowing smoke particles to stay in the stratosphere for weeks.
This also allows wildfire smoke to travel huge distances. Large wildfires can send smoke billowing across whole continents and even oceans.
As climate change continues to make wildfires more frequent and destructive, we should treat the smoke resulting from them as an urgent public health threat and prepare affected populations accordingly.
There are about 1.7 million viruses that afflict mammals and birds, and about half of them could potentially infect humans, just like COVID-19, SARS, HIV, and Ebola. But a team of researchers at UC Davis are attempting to help prevent another pandemic from disrupting the world, by creating an app called SpillOver.
Why this Matters: The scientists creating the app believe that by creating a prioritized watchlist of viruses, we can better have improved detection and thus reduce the risk of disease transmission and maybe even preemptively develop vaccines, therapeutics, and public education campaigns for the viruses that pose the greatest risk.
Why This Matters: We’ve been relying on old data about farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides for the past 30 years, and thus the full picture of the harmful impact of these products on people has been underappreciated.
A coalition of 63 health, wildlife, and environmental organizations has written a letter urging the Biden administration to adopt policies to combat the increased threat of zoonotic disease spillover into human populations. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say that human population expansion and increased interactions with wildlife, present increased chances for future pandemics as well.
Why This Matters: According to the World Health Organization, there are over 200 known zoonoses, diseases that have jumped from non-human animals to humans.
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