Nicotine kills. This is a statement that likely made many of us decide not to smoke or to quit smoking. However, it turns out that simply breathing the air outside can wreak just as much havoc on our health.
The effects of Earth’s rising temperatures — wildfires in particular — are a major danger to human health.
In the past two decades, air quality in the United States has improved due to policies such as the Clean Air Act. However, the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires due to rising temperatures is undoing much of it, according to Marshall Burke, an associate professor of Earth System Science at Stanford.
A study by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment reports that 15 to 20 years ago, only up to 10% of PM2.5 pollution — fine inhalable particles with diameters 2.5 micrometers or smaller — was from wildfire smoke, but in recent years, the national level has risen to 25%, with areas in the West reaching 50% in fire-heavy years.
Why is this increase concerning?
The higher the PM2.5 levels in the air, the worse the Air Quality Index (AQI) will be. Kari Nadeau, professor of Pediatric Food Allergy, Immunology, and Asthma at Stanford, explains that a wildfire smoke–induced AQI measurement of 20 is equivalent to smoking one cigarette a day, and an AQI of 150 for several days — if someone were outside the entire time — is equivalent to around seven cigarettes a day.
She further points out that even if you stay inside, the polluted air could be leaking in. Moreover, the analogy doesn’t account for toxins in the air — like those from burning cars and buildings — caused by wildfires that may go beyond the dangers of cigarettes.
Exposure to wildfire smoke for more than five days can cause strokes as well as damage to the lungs, blood, and heart, with marginalized communities, children, people over 65, and pregnant women all being at higher risk.
What can you do to protect yourself from wildfire smoke?
Stay inside as much as possible, and use a HEPA air filter in your home. If you have to go outside, wear a mask and limit your activity.
For the bigger picture, we can work to lessen the frequency and severity of wildfires by slowing Earth’s overheating by avoiding single-use plastics, integrating clean energy at home, and limiting our burning of methane gas by taking public transportation, riding a bike, or upgrading to an electric vehicle.
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