The wildfires that burned through the Pacific Northwest this past summer caused hazy skies throughout Washington and Oregon. Air pollution from tiny particles released by fire is a known health hazard.
New research from Colorado State University is trying to quantify the effect on human health.
CSU Associate Professor Jeffrey Pierce said the threat to human health will increase as warmer global temperatures contribute to more wildfires.
“The hypotheses here is that warmer spring temperatures lead to earlier snow melt, warmer summer temperatures can dry out the wood even more and you can get even more fires,” he said.
The new study estimates smoke from wildfires contributes to 25,000 deaths per year around the world. It predicts the number will triple by the end of the century as warmer global temperatures lead to more fires in the West, Southwest and Canada.
But researcher Katelyn O’Dell said the death toll doesn’t tell the whole story. She told a recent gathering of scientists that the short-term health effects are much wider.
“Things like kids missing school, people missing work, people having asthma attacks would affect a larger part of the population, so the impact of smoke exposure is probably a lot greater than we’re even seeing,” O’Dell said.
A University of Houston study estimates a lower death toll—around 5,000 deaths per year from 2011 to 2014.
The Washington state Department of Ecology is reviewing air quality and health data from recent wildfires and expects to release a final report and interactive map early next year.