Asian Reporter web extra, October 18, 2020
Wildfire smoke in U.S. exposes millions to hazardous
By Matthew Brown and Camille Fassett
The Associated Press
October 18, 2020
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. ó Wildfires churning out dense plumes of smoke as they
scorch huge swaths of the U.S. west coast have exposed millions of people to
hazardous pollution levels, causing emergency room visits to spike and
potentially thousands of deaths among the elderly and infirm, according to
an Associated Press analysis of pollution data and interviews with
physicians, health authorities, and researchers.
Smoke at concentrations that topped the governmentís charts for health
risks and lasted at least a day enshrouded counties inhabited by more than 8
million people across five states in recent weeks, APís analysis shows.
Major cities in Oregon, which has been especially hard hit, last month
suffered the highest pollution levels theyíve ever recorded when powerful
winds supercharged fires that had been burning in remote areas and sent them
hurtling to the edge of densely populated Portland.
Medical complications began arising while communities were still
enveloped in smoke, including hundreds of additional emergency room visits
daily in Oregon, according to state health officials.
"Itís been brutal for me," said Barb Trout, a 64-year-old retiree living
south of Portland in the Willamette Valley. She was twice taken to the
emergency room by ambulance following severe asthmatic reactions, something
that had never happened to her before.
Trout had sheltered inside as soon as smoke rolled into the valley just
after Labor Day but within days had an asthma attack that left her gasping
for air and landed her in the ER. Two weeks later, when smoke from fires in
California drifted into the valley, she had an even more violent reaction
that Trout described as a near-death experience.
"It hit me quick and hard ó more so than the first one. I wasnít hardly
even breathing," she recalled. After getting stabilized with drugs, Trout
was sent home but the specter of a third attack now haunts her. She and her
husband installed an alarm system so she can press a panic button when in
distress to call for help.
"Itís put a whole new level on my life," she said. "Iím trying not to
live in fear, but Iíve got to be really really cautious."
In nearby Salem, Troutís pulmonologist Martin Johnson said people with
existing respiratory issues started showing up at his hospital or calling
his office almost immediately after the smoke arrived, many struggling to
breathe. Salem is in Marion County, which experienced eight days of
pollution at hazardous levels during a short period, some of the worst
conditions seen in the west over the past two decades, according to APís
Most of Johnsonís patients are expected to recover but he said some could
have permanent loss of lung function. Then there are the "hidden" victims
who Johnson suspects died from heart attacks or other problems triggered by
the poor air quality but whose cause of death will be chalked up to
"Many wonít show up at the hospital or theyíll die at home or theyíll
show up at hospice for other reasons, such as pneumonia or other
complications," Johnson said.
Based on prior studies of pollution-related deaths and the number of
people exposed to recent fires, researchers at Stanford University estimated
that as many as 3,000 people over 65 years old in California alone died
prematurely after being exposed to smoke during a six-week period beginning
August 1. Hundreds more deaths could have occurred in Washington over
several weeks of poor air caused by the fires, according to University of
The findings for both states have not been published in peer-reviewed
journals. No such estimate was available for Oregon.
A California heat wave on Thursday prompted warnings of extreme fire
danger and some precautionary powerline shutdowns.
Wildfires are a regular occurrence in western states, but theyíve grown
more intense and dangerous as a changing climate dries out forests thick
with trees and underbrush from decades of fire suppression. What makes the
smoke from these fires dangerous are particles too small for the naked eye
to see that can be breathed in and cause respiratory problems.
On any given day, western fires can produce 10 times more particles than
are produced by all other pollution sources including vehicle emissions and
industrial facilities, said Shawn Urbanski, a U.S. Forest Service smoke
Fires across the west emitted more than a million tons of the particles
in 2012, 2015, and 2017, and almost as much in 2018 ó the year a blaze in
Paradise, California killed 85 people and burned 14,000 houses, generating a
thick plume that blanketed portions of Northern California for weeks.
Figures for 2017 and 2018 are preliminary.
A confluence of meteorological events made the smoke especially bad this
year: first, fierce winds up and down the coast whipped fires into a fury,
followed in Oregon by a weather inversion that trapped smoke close to the
ground and made it inescapable for days. Hundreds of miles to the south in
San Francisco, smoke turned day into night, casting an eerie orange pall
over a city where even before the pandemic face masks had become common at
times to protect against smoke.
APís analysis of smoke exposure was based on U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) data compiled from hundreds of air quality
monitoring stations. Census data was used to determine the numbers of people
living in affected areas of Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, and
At least 38 million people live in counties subjected to pollution
considered unhealthy for the general population for five days, according to
APís analysis. That included more than 25 million people in California, 7.2
million in Washington, 3.5 million in Oregon, 1 million in Idaho, and
299,000 people in Montana.
The state totals for the number of people exposed to unhealthy air on a
given day were derived from counties where at least one monitoring site
registered unhealthy air.
Scientists studying long-term health problems have found correlations
between smoke exposure and decreased lung function, weakened immune systems,
and higher rates of flu. That includes studies from northwestern Montana
communities blanketed with smoke for weeks in 2017.
"Particulate matter enters your lungs, it gets way down deep, it
irrigates the lining, and it possibly enters your bloodstream," said
University of Montana professor Erin Landguth. "Weíre seeing the effects."
The coronavirus raises a compounding set of worries: An emerging body of
research connects increased air pollution with greater rates of infection
and severity of symptoms, said Gabriela Goldfarb, manager of environmental
health for the Oregon Health Authority.
Climate experts say residents of the west coast and Northern Rockies
should brace for more frequent major smoke events, as warming temperatures
and drought fuel bigger, more intense fires.
Their message is that climate change isnít going to bring worse
conditions: they are already here. The scale of this yearís fires is pushing
the envelope" of wildfire severity modelled out to 2050, said Harvard
University climate researcher Loretta Mickley
"The bad years will increase. The smoke will increase," said Jeffrey
Pierce an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University. "Itís not
unreasonable that we could be getting a 2020-type year every other year."
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.