Smoke From Wildfires Kill People
Wildfires like the ones raging in Indonesia cross mountains and oceans, spreading lung-clogging particles and toxic chemicals.
The emissions from wildfire smoke have tremendous public health implications. Around the world, billions of people are finding that the air carries a dangerous dose of smoke as wildfires become bigger and more intense.
“We see these trends, and the emissions from wildfire smoke have tremendous public health implications,” says Dr. Wayne Cascio, head of environmental public health at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory in North Carolina.
The City of Palangkaraya in Indonesia is blanketed with yellow, acrid smoke from peat fires. The government is expected to call a national emergency as the fires and smoke spread.
Worldwide, wildfire smoke kills 339,000 people a year, mostly in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, researchers estimate. In addition, other studies document up to a 10X increase in asthma attacks, emergency-room visits, and hospital admissions when smoke blankets places where people live.
Much of Southeast Asia has been blanketed with thick smoke from peat fires in Indonesia that are expected to smolder for months. An estimated 40-M Indonesians in 5 provinces are breathing the soot, and the government is expected to declare a national emergency.
When peat, a marshy material, burns, it spews “far more smoke and air pollution than most other types of fires,” according to NASA, which warns that the Asian fires are likely to worsen and spread vast distances.
Satellite images confirm that smoke can cross mountain ranges, continents, and oceans. Fires 250 miles away have triggered 911 calls in Albuquerque. Quebec blazes have sent plumes 800 miles to make New Yorkers wheeze.
The eyes of Texans have been reddened by Honduran farmers’ burning 1,500 miles to the south. And North American smoke has traveled 5,000 miles to twitch nostrils in Eastern Europe. Some, such as Indonesia’s fires, have plumes of smoke so huge they obliterate entire countries in photographs shot from outer space.
Fires can smolder for months, and layers of stagnant air known as inversions, common in the western US, can hold smoke down where people breathe. On some days, the smoke threat from wildfires can far exceed the air pollutant levels that federal standards allow.
A NASA satellite image shows smoke from Indonesia’s fires. Peat fires burn there frequently because farmers engage in “slash and burn agriculture,” which involves burning of rain forest to clear land for crops and livestock.
Smoke’s biggest threat comes from the airborne, microscopic particles that slip past the body’s defenses and reach the alveoli, the farthest ends of the respiratory system. Some of these particles enter the blood and form a thick goo.
Smoke also contains CO (carbon monoxide), which can cause long-lasting damage to the heart, and chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde, known to cause cancer in humans.
Air pollution generically, and particles, specifically, are carcinogens. That is also be the case with smoke from wildfires, from the burning of vegetative matter.
New evidence is emerging that the heart is vulnerable to damage inflicted by smoke.
EPA researchers found that emergency-room visits for heart failure jumped 37% following the smokiest days of a big Y 2008 peat fire in eastern North Carolina. ER trips for breathing problems rose by 66%. Poor people faced the most risk, even with access to medical care, EPA statistician Ana Rappold says. The challenge is in front of us. We know that these ecosystems will burn.
In Y 2015, Dr. Anjali Haikerwal of Australia’s Monash University reported a 7% increase in out-of-hospital cases of cardiac arrest when bushfire smoke blanketed greater Melbourne in 2006-07. “Now we have very, very strong evidence,” she says.
Reasons for the trend toward bigger and more damaging fires vary, but the shifting relationship between people and the planet is a primary culprit.
People are moving into cities’ wilder, wildfire-prone edges, particularly in California, Texas, and Florida.
Especially in the West, decades-long suppression of blazes has set the conditions for today’s raging fires. Globally, while fire is an age-old farming tool, burning to clear cropland has reached an industrial scale.
In East Asia, forests are being burned down to transform them into Palm Oil plantations.
Climate change also is worsening exposure to wildfire smoke.
In Y 2011, the National Research Council estimated that for each 1.8 degree F. (1C) rise in global temperature, the number of acres burned in the western US could increase by 200 to 400%.
25% of the Earth’s vegetated surface is seeing much longer fire seasons, according to US Forest Service scientists. “If these fire weather changes are coupled with ignition sources and available fuel,” the researchers wrote, “they could markedly impact global ecosystems, societies, economies and climate.”
The Big Q: What can people and society do?
The Big A: The choices are limited; you cannot block smoke with some enormous filter in the sky, setting small, controlled wildfires would eliminate the vegetation that fuels huge fires. Many state and local air-quality rules limit when prescribed fires are allowed, and fire guidelines generally forbid burning when smoke might reach neighborhoods.
“The challenge is in front of us,” said a smoke manager at the US Forest Service. “We know that these ecosystems will burn.”
For those in the smoke, experts advise people to stay inside with windows shut and air conditioners and air filters on. And do not work out when the world seems like a giant bonfire.
Do not go biking or go running when you can smell the air.
Remember, always take extreme care when traveling in Fire Danger Zones, lives and property depend on it.