People Across America Are Choking on Wildfire Smoke

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“Dramatic” rise in soot and ash has degraded air quality for millions, scientists warn.

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Millions of Americans are now routinely exposed to unhealthy plumes of wildfire smoke that can waft thousands of miles across the country, scientists have warned.

Wildfires cause soot and ash to be thrown off into the air, which then carries the minuscule particles that can be inhaled by people many miles away, aggravating a variety of health conditions. The number of people in the US exposed to unhealthy levels of these particulates from wildfires at least one day a year has increased 27-fold over the last decade, a new study found, with 25 million people in 2020 alone breathing in potentially toxic air from fires.

Pockets of deeply unhealthy air have emerged mainly in the US west, the staging ground for wildfires of increasing intensity that have been fueled by years of fire suppression and global heating, priming forests to burn. Six of the seven largest wildfires in California’s recorded history have occurred since 2020.

Wildfire smoke can result in the closure of schools, the postponement of flights and even cause cycling races and Pearl Jam concerts to be canceled. But its most pervasive impact is a regression in air quality barely seen since the advent of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which helped lift dangerous, choking smog conditions from many polluted US cities.

“We are seeing the undoing of a lot of that clean air progress, especially in the west,” said Marshall Burke, a scientist at Stanford University and co-author of the study published in Environmental Science and Technology.

“There’s been really dramatic increases in wildfire smoke as air pollution, in some places fully reversing the impact of the Clean Air Act. It’s been remarkably quick. Our air pollution regulations are not designed to deal with this. It’s a worrying problem.”

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