Experts discuss how wildfire smoke harms human health » Yale Climate Connections

Wildfires in the summer of 2022 burned in the mountains of New Mexico surrounding the valley where Markelle Musgrave lives. Musgrave’s pueblo, Nanbe Owinge, swung into action. Community members gathered information and materials to protect children and adults from the smoky air.

Musgrave described this experience and more during a panel discussion in November, organized by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication and Yale Climate Connections, focusing on the health effects of wildfire smoke. Musgrave joined Dr. Colleen Reed, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, who shared recent research on the effects that inhaling wildfire smoke has on human health. And Dr. Jeff Masters, a Yale Climate Connections fellow and meteorologist who has a Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology, explained that climate change is making wildfires and air pollution worse. The conversation was moderated by Dr. Kai Chen, assistant professor of epidemiology (environmental health) at Yale University.

Panel takeaways:

  • The most vulnerable have a lot to learn: Wildfire smoke enveloped the community of Musgrave in 2020 while the COVID pandemic was in its early days. The community already had high rates of asthma. Musgrave began buying air purifiers for their community and then began making DIY air purifiers called Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, often referred to as CR boxes.
  • Communities care for each other: Musgrave said their community needs to step up to ensure people have access to information during New Mexico’s largest wildfires in 2022. Community members have held community education campaigns, taken CR boxes to evacuation centers shelters, measured airflow levels and tried to make sure people were safe from COVID-19 and smoke. Hers and other frontline communities are also calling for climate justice and returning land to indigenous care.
  • Wildfire smoke and respiratory illnesses are clearly linked: Studies show that exposure to wildfire smoke is linked to exacerbations of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly called COPD. Recent studies have also shown that wildfire smoke can exacerbate respiratory infections such as influenza or tuberculosis.
  • Wildfire smoke can negatively affect birth outcomes: In addition to respiratory disease, wildfire smoke exposure is linked to low birth weight or premature births, Reed said.
  • Forest fires harm mental health: Wildfires in general can be traumatic, as evacuations and losses cause stress and grief. Smoke can also lead to isolation when people cannot spend time outdoors.
  • Access to smoke protection is not equal: Dr Reed said people who work outdoors and live in poorly sealed homes are not able to protect themselves from smoke as well as others. Communities that have been exposed to high levels of pollution in the past are also at higher risk of poor health outcomes when exposed to wildfire smoke.
  • Wildfire smoke is a growing problem in the Western US: Much progress has been made in reducing air pollution since the Clean Air Act, but the increase in large wildfires is undermining some of that progress. In the western US, wildfires now account for about 50% of all PM2.5, tiny pollutant particles found in smoke. PM2.5 is estimated to cause about 90% of all air pollution deaths.
  • There are more forest fires due to climate change: The climate in the West has become hotter and drier, and the region is expected to become increasingly arid in the future. Between 1972 and 2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in annual area burned due to hotter summers and less rainfall. The unusual behavior of the jet stream, which is also believed to be caused in part by climate change, plays a role in the prolonged hot and dry weather events in the West.
  • “We need to stop burning fossil fuels,” Jeff Masters said: It is estimated that almost 9 million premature deaths from air pollution each year are due to the burning of fossil fuels, and this will increase with more smoke from wildfires. But clean energy is getting much cheaper, and there’s plenty of room for optimism.

Samantha Harrington, Associate Editor of Yale Climate Connections, is a journalist and graphic designer with a background in digital media and entrepreneurship. “Sam” is particularly interested in sharing… More by Samantha Harrington

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