Wildfire smoke: experts warn of 'serious health effects' across western USA
By Oliver Milman
“A big wildfire event not only impacts local communities but also people hundreds of miles away,” said Richard Peltier, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts. “Even if your home isn’t being destroyed and you think ‘this isn’t my problem’ you could suffer serious health effects.”
Once a forest turns into a roaring fire, plumes of sooty smoke containing gases and microscopic particles are released. This can cause a range of symptoms such as coughing, burning eyes and shortness of breath.
More seriously, the smoke can trigger asthma attacks or, more chronically, lead to heart problems and has even been linked to the development of cancer. As summers become longer, warmer and drier in the US west, forests are being transformed into perfect staging grounds for repeated wildfires of increasing ferocity.
There is evidence that the increase in wildfires is already taking a toll on Americans’ health. While overall air quality has improved in the US over the past 30 years, wildfire-prone states in the northwest are a glaring exception and are actually getting worse, new research has found.
Researchers at the University of Washington looked through data on the very worst bad air days, totaling roughly a week each year, across the country since 1988. While the rest of the country has experienced a sharp improvement in air quality, a sprawling patch that includes parts of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, much of Utah and Nevada, and parts of California, Oregon and Washington has got significantly worse.