It’s wildfire season in the West, with the San Francisco area under air quality alerts for part of the past week. Devastating wildfires in California have become all too common in recent years, and three of the state’s five deadliest wildfires happened since 2017. But this year also saw huge swaths of the Midwest, Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic affected by wildfire smoke coming from Canada. If you feel like you’ve been stuck inside an awful lot lately because the air is too smoky to go out, it’s definitely not just you: New research shows the serious impact increasing wildfires are having on our air quality—and our lives.
One thing you might not expect is that hospital emergency department visits go down on days with a lot of smoke, according to a new paper from Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab. But that’s not good news, the lab’s Marshall Burke tweeted. Emergency visits for respiratory problems go up on smoky days. The decrease comes from fewer people having accidents that send them to the hospital—and the reason there are fewer accidents is that people are staying inside to avoid the smoke. While people staying inside to avoid smoke may be less likely to break their legs, it’s not an overall quality-of-life improvement.
People have good reason to stay inside, though. Another paper from the ECHO Lab finds that, thanks to the Clean Air Act, PM2.5 levels—which measure fine particulate matter that poses a particularly significant health risk—had dropped by 40% between 2000-2015. Since 2015, wildfire smoke has wiped out 25% of that gain, with 75% of states affected. In some Western states, the amount of the improvement eliminated by wildfires is over 50%. Notably, some of the few states that were not affected by wildfire smoke in the paper’s data, which went through 2022, suffered from Canadian wildfire smoke this summer.
The research doesn’t give reason for optimism that it’s going to get better, Burke tweeted, offering some policy suggestions: “Multiple things we could do: more fuels mgmt and ensuring prescribed burns are allowed under CAA is impt.” Additionally, Burke said, “Homes, schools, places of work need access to filtration and need to know when to run it (often). In my view, there is strong role for public subsidy here, given large public health benefits.” (That’s an intervention that would also help reduce COVID-19 transmission.)
In short, if it seems to be smoky way too often lately, you are most definitely not imagining things. It really is that bad—and time for policymakers to plan on it getting worse.