January 12, 2021

Half the pollution in the western US is caused by wildfires

Half the pollution in the western US is caused by wildfires

According to a new study from researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Diego, in recent years wildfire smoke has accounted for up to 50% of all health-damaging small particle air pollution in the western US.

While pollution emissions have declined from other sources—including vehicle exhausts and power plants—warming global temperatures have fueled more destructive fires in the country. 

Large wildfires result in huge plumes of smoke filled with harmful microscopic particles that can drift hundreds, and potentially thousands, of miles.

Analysis by the Associated Press found that at least 38 million people in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana were exposed to unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke for at least five days in 2020. 

According to health authorities and researchers, particles from those wildfires could be to blame for health problems ranging from difficulty breathing to a projected spike in premature deaths. 

Scientists studying long-term health problems have also found correlations between smoke exposure and decreased lung function, weakened immune systems, and higher rates of flu, underscoring the growing public health threat posed by climate change. 

“The well-known adverse human health consequences from exposure to elevated levels of pollution have led the WHO to describe the situation as a ‘public health emergency’,” writes Sefi Roth in his IZA World of Labor article. However, he further notes how “air pollution may also affect aspects of human life beyond health, such as learning outcomes.” Roth stresses that this finding “is of paramount importance, as a sound educational background is essential to many occupations. Therefore, it is vital to take these potential additional costs into account when formulating contemporary environmental policies.”

Find more IZA World of Labor content on how environmental issues like climate change and air pollution affect the labor market.