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Wildfires, climate change and the air we breathe

Wildfires, climate change and the air we breathe
© Getty Images

Air quality monitoring apps are becoming a favorite among Americans. Tragically, they are growing in popularity thanks to a combination of the climate crisis and the massive wildfires that are burning down the West and creating enormous plumes of toxic smoke, choking communities from sea to shining sea. In fact, even 3,000 miles away on the East Coast, skies have grown murky because of all the smoke in the atmosphere.

The sad truth is that we’re riveted to air quality apps because we can see the haze and feel the smoke in the back of our throats but we’re just not sure what it all means. When we see that a 300 rating is a “hazardous” level, what do numbers north of 600 or even higher mean? What is happening to the lungs and hearts of our elderly mothers and fathers? How are babies with tiny organs faring? Are our young children safe in their homes? What about those who have to work outside? 

Elected officials should sit up and take note of the growing popularity of these apps. Many of their constituents are in fire-ravaged states, where they are directly breathing burned down trees and grasslands — along with all the aerosolized chemicals of modern life, from RoundUp to bleach. In recognizing this danger, our legislators must also understand that it is imperative to act on climate solutions.

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Voters are making climate action a growing priority because they understand that global warming is a force multiplier. It creates tinder dry conditions, which have turbocharged wildfires across the country in recent years. This year’s raging wildfires engulfing more than 7 million acres of Western lands have laid bare the looming threats of the warming planet. With only an average annual 1 degree Celsius temperature increase, the median amount of acres burned per year by wildfires in the Western United States would increase by as much as 600 percent. Even worse, without immediate changes to our profligate ways of burning coal, oil and gas, we can expect even warmer temperatures in the future and more disasters.

These fires pose a particularly insidious threat. Wildfire smoke produces a specific type of air pollutant known as particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5. These fine particles are smaller than the width of a hair and can irritate the eyes, nose and throat before settling into the airways and into the bloodstream. Research shows that those with chronic pulmonary conditions, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are particularly at risk. Exposure to this particle has been associated with acute conditions and the increased use of medical services.  

Doctors know firsthand how wildfire smoke affects their patients’ health. They see the wheezing and the labor required to draw a breath. They see the victims of COVID-19 and COPD trying to get air into their lungs. They see smoky air pushing the lungs of children with asthma to the limit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this problem. Terrible air quality has forced people who were relying on getting outdoors to maintain mental wellness, while still socially distancing, to stay in their homes. In addition, air pollution from wildfires may make it harder for those who acquire COVID-19 to fight off the infection. Previous research has shown that PM2.5 exposure triggers inflammatory responses that interfere with the body’s ability to fight off infections like pneumonia or flu. The triad of wildfires, COVID-19 and the upcoming flu season could make for another perfect storm for both health care workers and their patients. 

This wildfire season has taught us that climate change is not only an environmental crisis but also a health emergency. We must invest in climate change initiatives and elect officials who will push these initiatives into action. Otherwise, annual fiery infernos will become the new normal, and we all will suffer for it.   

Dr. Christine James is an allergist-immunologist who is interested in the intersection between climate change and health. She is a member of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and Climate Health Now, two health care professional organizations that recognize climate change as a public health issue. She is also a Copello fellow through Doctors for America. Andrea McGimsey is the senior director of global warming solutions for Environment America.