“Climate change – which increases the frequency and the intensity of wildfires – and the pandemic are a disastrous combination.”
That’s the startling conclusion of researchers who found a direct link between the devastating wildfires burning up the West and the increase in Covid infections among people breathing air polluted by wildfire smoke.
The researchers, a group of scientists based at Harvard University, studied people in California, Oregon and Washington who were exposed to wildfire smoke during the 2020 wildfire season. They estimated that nearly 20,000 extra coronavirus infections and 750 Covid deaths occurred due to the smoke.
Wildfire smoke is dangerous because it consists of toxic solid and liquid drops that are smaller than a human hair. That makes them extremely easy to inhale and lodge in the lungs, where they can worsen respiratory illnesses like asthma and COPD and even pass into the blood stream. As the smoke spreads across the country and exposes millions of people, reports National Geographic, “the health impact becomes more widespread among the most vulnerable.” Potentially, anyone who breathes air – in other words, everyone – is at risk.
That the smoke will spread is beyond doubt. Tammy Thompson, a Senior Air Quality Scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, says heat from the fires is shooting smoke, black carbon, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons high into the atmosphere, where they can form other harmful pollutants, such as ozone. “Often, the larger fires have enough heat and upward momentum to send their plumes…above the ground-level layer of air, where there are fewer removal pathways and stronger upper-level winds. This is why they can travel such long distances.”
Those most at risk from wildfire smoke are people with chronic respiratory conditions, heart disease, and pregnant women whose developing fetuses could be affected.
Notably, this summer, there are at least 80 fires blazing in the US. West and an additional 300 burning in British Colombia. Just one fire, Oregon’s Bootleg Fire, has burned more than 400,000 acres, an area nine times the size of Washington, D.C. In July, smoke from fires burning in California, Washington and Oregon was detected on the Eastern Seaboard, with kids from Boston to the Virginia beaches complaining of sore throats and scratchy eyes as their skies clouded with smoke that drifted 3,000 miles across the country and triggered “code orange” air quality alerts in the nation’s capital and beyond.
Because Covid is a respiratory disease that weakens the immune system, wildfire smoke can significantly worsen its impact. “Any type of respiratory disorder or infection is going to impair your ability to fight other infections,” Mary Prunicki, the director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University, told NatGeo. “So if smoke causes a reaction now, when you’re hit with an infection, your body won’t be prepared to fight it.”
The connection between climate change and fire is now well established. As the planet warms, droughts worsen. Forests dry out so entirely that a single lightning strike or random camp fire can set millions of acres ablaze. Climate change has caused fire season to start earlier, last longer, and burn many more homes as well as tens of thousands of acres of forests that send reams of polluting smoke billowing across the country. And the prognosis for the future is just as bad, given the likelihood that climate change will continue to bring warmer and drier conditions to the West, “providing more fuel for fires to consume and further enhancing fire activity,” said Francesca Dominici of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the senior author of the paper.
“I hope that this is providing an additional piece of evidence for why it’s important to get our act together to combat climate change.”