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Why we should all be worried about the wildfires

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A few weeks ago, people on the East Coast of the U.S. found themselves in a blanket of thick, gray haze, lit by an ominous red sun, and breathing in the smoke and toxic particles from more than 80 wildfires thousands of miles away. The smoke began arriving in New York City on July 15 and, nearly two weeks later, was still obscuring the skyline and filling the air with poison.

By Tuesday, July 20, New York’s Air Quality Index, a measure of how dangerous local air pollution is, was at 170, a level well into what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes as “unhealthy.” Like most New Yorkers and, I imagine, many others on the East Coast, I don’t usually pay much attention to air quality, because it doesn’t usually get bad enough to pay attention to (a fact which represents a reality worlds away from that of people just a few decades ago). And so, on the 20th, I found myself biking outside, wishing I were wearing something more protective than the two cotton masks I had on.

Somehow even more striking than the haze over the city and the bloody, diffused light and the smell of smoke was that almost no one else seemed to notice. It didn’t appear that there were any fewer people outside than normal, or that people were deciding not to go running outside, or even that people were wearing masks for fear of COVID-19, let alone the smoke. In short, people seemed to be ignoring the miasma of air pollution that was impossible not to see.

But I couldn’t ignore the obvious. I am currently working on the 2021 edition of our report Trouble in the Air, which is about the dangers of air pollution, and was immersed in studies about the health effects of air pollution. I was reading about just how harmful the kind of pollution that covered New York can be. I learned about links to emphysema; asthma; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; bronchitis; stroke; impairment of blood vessel functioning; artery calcification; reduced levels of so-called ‘good cholesterol;’ hypertensive disorders in pregnant women; heart disease; bipolar disorder; dementia; increased cognitive decline in older adults; worse performance on tests of memory, cognition and IQ in young children; increased risk for attention disorders; anxiety and depression in children; lower academic performance in students; brain inflammation and tissue damage in children; depression; lower male and female fertility; lower rates of conception; higher rates of low-birth weight of newborns; higher rates of pre-term birth and stillbirth; lung cancer; oral, cervical, esophageal and bladder cancer, and possibly brain, meningeal, kidney, liver, and colorectal cancer; influenza and influenza-like illnesses, diseases caused by respiratory syncytial virus, pneumonia, diseases caused by rhinovirus and other severe acute respiratory infections; COVID-19; and premature death in general.

Of course, it must be noted that most of these health effects have only been linked to extended exposure to air pollution. However, it is also true that more and more evidence points to the conclusion that there is no level of air pollution that is safe for human health or below which negative health effects cannot be measured.

Air pollution is likely to become a more frequent problem for many of us. Global warming is likely to increase levels of ozone pollution and the frequency at which we experience elevated levels. It will increase the frequency and severity of wildfires, which devastate communities and ecosystems as they fill the air with pollutants. And it might change weather patterns such that we more often experience days with stagnant air, trapping pollution near the ground.

We don’t have to live in a world of ever-worsening air quality. In fact, the air in New York proves it. In the 1960s, ash from incinerated garbage would rain down on the city and one especially bad smog event was estimated to have killed 200 people. Ending the practice of incinerating trash and switching away from coal and oil to produce electricity led to dramatic improvements in air quality in the late 20th century. And we have plenty of solutions open to us today to further clean the air, from generating electricity using renewable energy to running cars, trucks, buses, ships, home heating systems, water heaters and heavy industry on electricity. Even planting trees can help significantly. But we have to act now.

The impacts of global warming and air pollution are readily apparent in the western U.S., where wildfires rage every year and people check air quality just as they check the weather. For those of us in other parts of the country, it may have felt less immediate, further from home. But with the science on the health effects of air pollution becoming clearer and scarier, and the climate crisis reaching across continents into our lungs, we can no longer afford to ignore what is coming. Across the country and the world, we share one home, and it is on fire.

Image: density of black carbon in the atmosphere over North America on 21 July 2021. Credit: Joshua Stevens, National Aeronautics and Space Administration