DENVER – As Western states continue to struggle with an increasing number of large-scale wildfires and longer fire seasons, a new joint Yale-Harvard study predicts 82 million people will be exposed to higher levels of air pollution in coming decades.
Report co-author Jia Coco Liu, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said a changing climate is bringing hotter and drier conditions to the West, a perfect combination for wildfires – and increased health risks from the smoke.
“So, in the future, we estimated that there will be more air pollution episodes from wildfires,” she said, “so there will be more fine particulates from wildfires that can potentially impact your health.”
Liu said fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke is about 1/20th the diameter of human hair and can lead to respiratory and heart disease when absorbed by lung tissue. Researchers studied data from wildfire pollution in more than 500 Western counties from 2004 to 2009, and made projections for a future six-year period ending in 2051.
The study forecasts that 20 currently smoke-free counties will experience at least one major wildfire event by 2050, and Liu said Western counties already exposed to pollution are likely to see the length of “smoke waves” or consecutive days of pollution increase, by an average of 15 days.
“So, anyone really in the western U.S. could potentially be affected,” she said, “so you have to be aware of the potential impact of wildfire smoke to protect your health and your family.”
Liu said she hopes the results will help public-health officials prepare for higher air-pollution levels and give fire managers additional information as they face future blazes.
The report is online at link.springer.com.