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Wildfire smoke may be killing tens of thousands in U.S., researchers say

New research shows that smoke from wildfires may be contributing to the premature deaths of up to 25,000 people every year across the country, and the danger is only getting worse. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - New research shows that smoke from wildfires may be contributing to the premature deaths of up to 25,000 people every year across the country, and the danger is only getting worse.

It is a shocking bit of science regarding the currently smoky skies over Seattle, caused by wildfires in California, Oregon and British Columbia.

In recent days the fires have cast a pall across the horizon but all that murky air didn’t keep a lot of people indoors in sun-starved Seattle.

“These summer days in Seattle, it's really hard not to try to take advantage of all the dry days that you get,” said Morgan Zajonc, as she relaxed along the shore of Green Lake.

Whatever temptations the outdoors offers, a Colorado researcher said people should think twice when wildfires pollute the skies.

“Long term exposure to particles in the atmosphere, the haze that you'll see on a polluted day, can lead to an early death," said Associate Professor Jeffrey Pierce, a scientist with the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Colorado State University.

Pierce said preliminary research indicates that tens of thousands of people die each year in the U.S. because of repeated exposure to wildfire smoke, and steps should be taken to limit the risks.

“If you can see or smell the smoke, it is concentrated enough,” Pierce said.

Although the U.S. has been cleaning up the atmosphere by making cars emissions cleaner and power plants less pollutive, Pierce said we haven't reduced the amount of wildfire smoke.

“We're finding that, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, it is increasing,” he said. “Over the past several decades there has been an increase in the intensity and frequency of wildfires, particularly in the West. Much of this has been attributed to climate in that snow melt has been happening earlier, there has been a reduction in winter precipitation and summer temperatures have been getting hotter. Each of these things leaves the wood to get drier, and when you have drier wood it lights more easily and burns and spreads more easily."

Pierce cautioned that his mortality numbers need more study, and scientists need to better separate the dangers of wildfire smoke compared to pollution from power plants and cars.

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