When it comes to the health impacts of wildfire smoke, ignorance is not bliss | Guest column

By Arthur Winer

Before our memories of the recent siege of wildfire smoke fade, it’s important for islanders to understand just how dangerous that multiday episode—the worst in my 40-year history with Orcas Island—was for infants and the elderly, as well as for family, friends and neighbors who suffer from respiratory ailments like asthma or bronchitis. It’s also important to understand why lack of access to the expertise and capabilities of the Northwest Clean Air Agency, of which San Juan County was once a member, is a problem that should be addressed.

Decades of epidemiological studies have documented a wide range of health impacts due to particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter—particles from wildfires and combustion sources that penetrate deep into our lungs. It’s also well documented that mortality increases as the ambient air concentration of PM2.5 [particulate matter] rises. In fact, recent research suggests that wildfires may be surprisingly deadly, with estimates of mortality in the United States ranging from 1,500 to as high as 5,000 individuals dying annually from smoke particles specifically from wildfires burning in the United States and Canada.

My personal history with wildfire health effects dates from 2009, when the work of a postdoctoral researcher in my UCLA laboratory, in collaboration with a group of distinguished epidemiologists, led to a peer-reviewed paper on the relationship of respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions to the southern California wildfires of 2003. Our research showed that wildfire-related PM2.5 clearly led to increased hospital admissions due to respiratory impacts, especially asthma. Subsequent studies in the United States, Canada and Europe obtained similar results.

It is ironic that the lead advice of the Washington State Department of Health concerning how you can protect yourself and your family from the hazards of outdoor smoke-related particulates, is to “Check local air quality reports…” In the San Juan Islands, we can’t do that, ironically, because there is no local monitoring of air pollution here. Sure, we can look across the water and note, for example, that in this most recent wildfire episode levels of PM2.5 in Bellingham reached more than five times higher than the 24-hour health-based United States ambient air quality standard, and more than ten times higher than the annual average standard! But in the absence of our own monitoring, we can’t know the true magnitude of the risk we face during severe wildfire particulate pollution events, especially given the highly localized wind patterns in the islands that may make smoke transport differ substantially from the mainland.

A hundred years of fire suppression policies in North America, combined with increasing atmospheric temperatures and resulting incidents of drought and insect damage to our forests, make it likely that the frequency, duration and severity of wildfire events will continue to increase. For the sake of our health, and as a first step toward obtaining early warnings specific to our islands of oncoming smoke events, it’s time for San Juan County to re-join the Northwest Clean Air Agency.

Winer has a Ph.D. and is professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Health and Institute of Environment and Sustainability.