‘There are no safe levels of pollution’: An interview with wildfire researcher Sam Heft-Neal | Climate crisis


AAs the climate crisis brings drought and parched landscapes, wildfires across the western United States are spreading smoky air over millions of people, even those who live far from where the fires are burning. The problem is becoming so pronounced that some California TV weather forecasters are now including “smoke jets” in their reports, displaying models that predict where the smoky air from a wildfire will move days into the future.

Smoke from wildfires in recent years has accounted for up to 50% of all hazardous small-particle air pollution in the western United States, research shows, and the problem is getting worse.

The largest fire to hit California this year, the McKinney Fire, is raging in the Klamath National Forest.

Scientists warn that current health policies are not effectively protecting people from the dangers of smoke inhalation, and a new study published in July highlighted how dangerous levels of tiny pollution particles in smoke from wildfires of forest spread to households not threatened by the fire itself.

The Guardian spoke to one of the authors of this new study: Sam Heft-Neal is a wildfire researcher at Stanford University’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab (ECHO).

What was the most striking finding of the study?

The first is that even if you look at the very high income homes in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, their indoor air quality is really bad during average wildfires. It surprised me. I thought that wealthy people concerned about air quality would be able to protect themselves effectively. And that doesn’t seem to be the case. This is worrying, as we expect many groups to be less able to protect themselves.

What do you think are the implications of the study for policy makers?

Wildfire pollution is simply fundamentally different from other types of pollution. When there is pollution from transportation, it is relatively simple to try to reduce the source of pollution by regulating vehicle emissions and taxing gasoline or whatever policy makers want to do. But that’s really hard to do with forest fires. We cannot implement any policy that will eliminate or significantly reduce wildfires in the short term. And so instead, the main policy is just to tell people to protect themselves.

So I think there needs to be huge efforts to try to identify vulnerable populations and help them protect themselves. So you don’t leave everyone to themselves. This will only exacerbate existing inequalities.

Asthma patients are often among the most affected by wildfire smoke. According to CDC data from 2016 to 2018, Puerto Ricans have the highest asthma rates of any ethnic group in the country. United States, followed by African Americans. What measures could be taken to address vulnerable populations?

The most effective measure would be to provide air purifiers to vulnerable households. Maybe that means low-income households. This could definitely mean people with asthma or other respiratory issues that are going to be exacerbated.

In California, the Bay Area Air Quality District, for example, has an air purifier loaner program during severe wildfires. It’s just a very expensive policy that is difficult to implement on a large scale. But efforts are underway to try and expand them, because if you’re able to keep your windows and doors closed and stay home and turn on an air purifier, that seems like the best way to protect yourself. .

What about N95 masks?

N95 masks are definitely effective if you have to go outside. They must be worn effectively. Many people wear N95 masks that are too loose and therefore they are not that effective. But when worn effectively, they definitely alleviate the problem when you are outdoors.

What other research is going on around the world, as we all watch the news and see fires and heatwaves all over Europe?

There are several key takeaways from recent work. The first is that there are no safe levels of pollution. You see health impacts even at very low levels. So really, there is no safe level of exposure.

And the second main point is that people had originally speculated that pollution from wildfire smoke might be less harmful than pollution from other sources. And that doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems that smoke from wildfires is just as bad as pollution from other sources.

Last year, a study showed that the California fires had increased hospital visits on the East Coast. The smoke can travel very far and can really impact pollution levels everywhere.

What are you working on now?

One of the real unanswered questions is trying to understand what drives indoor air quality differences. Even neighboring households can have very different indoor air quality. And that’s true even after you take into account the year people’s homes were built, whether they had air conditioning or not, all that other stuff.

And we’re really interested in tracking low-income households. We want to learn about households that may not have the resources to purchase their own air quality monitors.

Who measures the impacts of global pollution?

This is a really promising new avenue of research that is progressing rapidly. The European Space Agency set up a new satellite three or four years ago with sensors specially designed to monitor pollution. It really gave us new insights into global pollution patterns because you can see pollution every day all over the world.

And you can break down the types of pollution using satellite data. We still don’t have the historical records we would need to study the long-term impacts… but at least now we can see what current pollution patterns look like and see how the movements are progressing.

  • This story is co-published with The New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group.


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