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Study shows: 50,000 Californians died from wildfire smoke within a decade – Mother Jones

Fire and smoke blaze in a forest area

The 2022 McKinney fire in the Klamath River, California. Mark McKenna/Zuma

This story was originally published by the guard and is reproduced here as part of the Climatedesk Cooperation.

More than 50,000 people have died prematurely in California over a decade due to exposure to toxic particles in smoke from wildfires, a new study finds.

Wildfires produce smoke that contains PM2.5, tiny particles about one-thirtieth the width of a human hair that can lodge deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream. The particles have been linked to numerous health problems and premature death. Previous research has found that wildfire smoke exposes millions of people in the United States to this harmful pollutant.

In a study published in Scientific advances This week, researchers used a new epidemiological model to examine the impact of exposure to PM2.5 emissions from wildfires between 2008 and 2018: a period that includes some of the state’s most destructive and deadly fire seasons. According to the study, there were at least 52,480 premature deaths attributed to exposure to the respirable particles from wildfires and at least $432 billion in health care costs related to exposure.

“The results are truly a call to action regarding forest management and climate change mitigation.”

The study is the first to quantify the long-term effects of chronic exposure to PM2.5 specifically from wildfires rather than other sources. It has important implications for California, said Rachel Connolly, one of the study’s authors. The results suggest that wildfires are responsible for more deaths and greater economic impacts than previous studies have suggested.

“The results are really a call to action for forest management and climate change mitigation,” said Connolly, who is project leader at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and also works at the Fielding School of Public Health.

The impact of PM2.5 pollution on human health is only just beginning to be recognized by researchers, but the particles can impair lung function and worsen existing health conditions, including respiratory problems and heart disease.

Fine dust particles from wildfires may be more harmful to human health than particles from other sources, the study says. They are also linked to respiratory diseases and an increase in hospitalizations. Other studies have linked exposure to wildfire smoke to an increased risk of heart attacks and premature births.

California has experienced numerous devastating fires in recent years, including a historically brutal wildfire season in 2020 that killed 31 people and turned the skies across the American West an eerie orange, exposing 25 million people to the toxic air from the fires.

Experts and scientists attribute the increasing intensity of wildfires to years of misguided firefighting efforts, forest management practices and a landscape that has become hotter and drier in the wake of the climate crisis. The disasters have killed dozens of people, destroyed communities and exposed millions to wildfire smoke.

People should take steps to protect themselves from wildfire smoke, Connolly said, but the study’s findings suggest that society needs to invest in forest management, managing wilderness-urban interfaces and mitigating climate change to achieve tangible public health benefits.

“The importance of wildfire management will only increase in the coming decades as desiccation increases with climate change and more regions become vulnerable to fire,” the authors write in the study.