Last month, I walked through the halls of Congress with a group of 8th graders and high school students and listened to them share their stories about how climate change is affecting their mental health. Many of their stories were connected to direct experiences with California wildfires: one student had lost her home to a wildfire; another described how smoky days exacerbate her asthma. Several recounted the intense anxiety they feel every time they smell smoke.
Climate change is increasing the severity, duration, and extent of wildfires. The trauma of experiencing a wildfire at close range is taking an increasing toll on mental health, particularly for people living in traditionally fire-prone areas. And recent research from Stanford University paints a picture of how increasing wildfire smoke is damaging air quality, eroding decades of progress on clean air.
Wildfire smoke is harmful to human health because it contains tiny particles called fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5. PM 2.5 is easily inhaled and can become embedded in the lungs and bloodstream. The immediate health impacts of inhaling wildfire smoke can include coughing, difficulty breathing, eye irritation, scratchy throat, runny nose, chest pain, headaches, and asthma attacks. But long-term exposure to PM 2.5 from wildfire smoke and other sources is also dangerous and can exacerbate preexisting conditions like heart or lung disease.
According to the new study, the number of people exposed yearly to at least one day of unhealthy air quality, where the concentration of PM 2.5 reached at least 100 micrograms per cubic meter, has increased 27-fold in the past decade. In 2020, 25 million people in the contiguous United States were exposed to this level of air pollution.
This has alarming implications for human health. In an interview with the New York Times, environmental epidemiologist Dr. Tarik Benmarhnia noted that there is “no safe concentration” of wildfire smoke. Dr. Benmarhnia’s earlier research found evidence that fine particles from wildfire smoke can be 10 times more dangerous than those from other sources of air pollution. And concerningly, the long-term impacts of chronic wildfire smoke inhalation are still relatively understudied, as much of the evidence on the health effects of air pollution is focused on fine particulate matter that comes from sources like vehicle exhaust and power plant emissions.
The dramatic increase in wildfire smoke is contributing to a troubling reversal of progress on air pollution. Thanks to regulations from the Clean Air Act, the country’s bedrock air pollution legislation, fine particulate matter pollution declined dramatically over the past four decades. But in recent years, this trend has shifted. And unlike air pollution from industrial and commercial sources, air pollution from wildfire smoke isn’t regulated by the Clean Air Act.
While listening to the students’ stories last month, I couldn’t help but think of the stories my Bay Area friends have shared each of the last several years during wildfire season—stories of parents stuck inside with toddlers when the air was too smoky to go outside; stories of pregnant mothers having to evacuate to relatives’ homes hundreds of miles away in order to protect their growing babies from the potential health harms of wildfire smoke. For far too many families, wildfires are changing the terrain of everyday life in frightening, stressful ways.
Taking in more bad news about climate-driven weather extremes is daunting—even learning about the increasing impacts of wildfires can trigger climate anxiety, even for those of us who might not be directly affected. But for me, it can help to think of information like new research on wildfires as a call to action. I may not be able to protect all the people I love from the physical and mental health effects of wildfires, but I can choose to advocate for policies that can mitigate future climate warming and increase our resilience to the climate challenges we’ll inevitably face.
And so can you: if you haven’t yet, join Moms Clean Air Force in fighting for our kids’ right to breathe clean air. There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but none of us have to do this work alone.