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Air pollution from California wildfires is more than twice what EPA says is ‘hazardous’ 


As dozens of wildfires rage across California, air pollution levels are skyrocketing.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) measures air pollution with the Air Quality Index – an AQI of 50 or below represents good air quality. 

A score of between 201 and 300 is considered ‘very unhealthy,’ while anything above 300 is considered ‘hazardous,’ with emergency conditions in effect for all residents.

In some regions of the California now, the AQI is above 700, according to the U.S. government’s AirNow website

The result is an environmental crisis that could easily become a health crisis.

AirNow’s map of the air quality across the western United States. Yellow is considered moderate, while red is ‘unhealthy,’ purple is ‘very unhealthy’ and maroon is ‘hazardous’

‘In my experience, the impact of the current fires is unprecedented and exposures may prove dangerous for many people,’ Michael Kleinman of the University of California, Irvine’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Health told Newsweek.

While California faces wildfires every year, experts say climate change has greatly increased their frequency and intensity.

‘The debate is over around climate change,’ Governor Gavin Newsom said Friday while touring the fire-ravaged town of Oroville. ‘Just come to the state of California, observe it with your own eyes,’

Newsom cited August being the hottest in state history, 14,000 dry lightning strikes in three days, plus record-breaking temperatures and droughts.

The Bobcat Fire consumes trees in the Angeles National Forest on September 10, 2020. Particulates can travel miles and impact the health of people far from a blaze

This year’s season is already the worst on record, with two months still to go.

More than three million acres have been incinerated, with 19 recorded deaths and 4,000 buildings burned across the state.

‘It’s a historic season on top of a historic season that replaced a historic season,’ Sean Norman, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the AP.

A chart indicating the Air Quality Index levels and their meanings. Anything about a 200 is considered ‘very unhealthy,’ and above 300 is ‘hazardous. Parts of California have registered over 700 all week

‘We just keep setting new precedents, and then we keep destroying them.’

In addition to devastating the landscape, the fires pose a threat to human health.

Particles from burning biomass can drift miles to reach areas far from a fire.

The worst of these fine particulates, known as PM2.5, irritate the respiratory tract and lungs and can cause chest pain, bronchitis, pneumonia, COPD, and even heart failure. 

An AirNow map indicating air quality across the US on September 11, 2020. Green dots represent ‘good’ air levels, while red, orange and maroon indicate increasing levels of air pollution

An October 2018 study found that PM2.5 exposure raised the risk of mouth cancer by up to 40 percent. 

‘Some of the compounds on the particles are also known carcinogens,’ Kleinman told Newsweek. ‘The gases contain carbon monoxide, which is poisonous, oxides of nitrogen, and vapors such as formaldehyde and acrolein, all of which can impact health.’

He compared it to the damage caused by cigarette smoking.

‘Many of the same toxic compounds that are found in tobacco smoke are found in wildfire smoke.’

The downtown Los Angeles skyline on September 10, 2020. Residents are being encouraged to stay indoors, keep windows and doors closed and set air conditioners to run on recirculated air

And the danger isn’t limited to the Golden State – Oregon and Washington are also reporting record air quality measurements, as well.

In Western Oregon, Cottage Grove, a town of some 10,000 in the Willamette Valley, recorded a measurement of 807, according to KOMO Channel 4

Even in Portland, which hasn’t been hit as badly as other parts of the state, the index reached 500 yesterday.

That’s worse than pollution capitals like Mexico City and Beijing.

Residents in impacted states are being told to limit outdoor exposure, set air conditioners to run on recirculated air, and avoid activities like driving, lawn mowing and barbecuing.

‘Keep windows and doors closed,’ Travis Knudsen with the Lane County Regional Air Protection Agency told KOMO.

‘Seal any place air may be getting into your home. We’re waiting for a major weather pattern shift before we see any relief from the smoke. One may arrive early next week if the forecast doesn’t change, until then our air won’t see much improvement.’


The amount of land in North America devastated by wildfires each year is set to rise, according to new research (file photo)

The ‘Thomas Fire’ destroyed 281,893 acres in California in December 2017.

Additionally, British Columbia’s Nazko Complex Fire last year consumed more than a million acres, making it the largest ever recorded in the province.

But the amount of land destroyed by wildfires each year will only go up in western and northern North America in the years to come, according to a new report published in the journal Plos One.

Up to 90 percent of US wildfires are caused by people, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

These fires can be initiated by unattended campfires, piles of burning debris, haphazardly discarded cigarettes or arson.

The remaining tenth of wildfires not started by humans are attributed to either lighting or lava.

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