The frequent and intense wildfires in the United States are worsening air quality and leading to more premature deaths, reversing two decades of progress.
A new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health shows that air quality in the Western U.S. deteriorated between 2000 and 2020, with an annual 55% increase in black carbon concentrations, mainly attributed to wildfires.
As a result, the study highlights that these fires led to an annual increase of 670 premature deaths in the region.
“Wildfires have become increasingly intensive and frequent in the western USA, resulting in a significant increase in smoke-related emissions in populated areas. This increase is likely to have contributed to a decline in air quality and an increase in attributable mortality,” the study reads. “Reducing fire risk via effective policies besides mitigation of climate warming, such as wildfire prevention and management, forest restoration, and new revenue generation, could substantially improve air quality and public health in the coming decades.”
Researchers examined PM2.5 (fine inhalable particles) and black carbon. They found that an estimated 3.2 million deaths in the U.S. were linked to PM2.5 pollution from 2000 to 2020.
The findings also stress the importance of strategies to address the increasing risk of wildfires, intensified by climate change.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the average wildfire season in the western U.S. is over three months longer than it was a few decades ago.
Climate change makes wildfires worse by creating the hot, dry conditions that fuel these fires. As global temperatures rise, experts say we could see an increase in the size, frequency, and severity of wildfires in the coming years.