Raging wildfires send scientists scrambling to study health effects
Record-setting wildfires have burnt through northern California over the past month, blanketing huge swathes of the western United States in a smoky haze and destroying an area larger than London. Now scientists are hoping that the fiery summer will help them determine whether exposure to wildfire smoke damages health over the long term.
Finding answers is becoming more urgent because the behaviour of wildfires — in the United States and elsewhere — is expected to shift in the coming decades. Climate models predict that many more people worldwide will be exposed to toxic smoke as these blazes become more common and intense. US wildfires already produce about one-third of the country’s particulate-matter pollution, airborne particles that are small enough to enter and damage human lung tissue1.
“When we think about climate-change policy and cost–benefits, if we don’t include human-health impacts we’re not getting an accurate assessment,” says Michelle Bell, an environmental-health researcher at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “The line between natural and anthropogenic air pollution has blurred in terms of wildfires.”