Tags: California | smoke | wildfires | deaths | stanford | pollution

Smoke From California Wildfires Responsible for Over 1,200 Deaths

california wildfire is shown near palm trees
A plume of smoke rises from the Ranch 2 Fire on August 15, 2020 as seen from Azusa, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

By    |   Wednesday, 23 September 2020 11:25 AM

Heavy smoke that has filled the California air from wildfires could be responsible for as many as 3,000 deaths, according to researchers at Stanford University.

The Mercury News reports that health officials say the smoke has killed more people than the flames from the actual fires.

Stanford researchers estimate the smoke that has been filling the California air could be the cause of at least 1,200 deaths between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10. They say that number could be as high as 3,000. Researchers noted that among the fatalities were people who were 65 and older who had preexisting medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory ailments.

Through Wednesday, the state reported 26 deaths were directly caused by wildfires this year.

“Clean air is much more important than we realize,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford who calculated the impacts of the smoke. “When you look at it on a population level, you can see very clearly that breathing clean air has huge public health benefits, and breathing dirty air has disastrous consequences.”

To come up with the death toll from the smoke, researchers compared air pollution readings during California’s fires with death rates and emergency room rates from a previous study. That study used Medicare data to show when levels of particulate pollution increased, the death rate of people 65 and over also increased, as did emergency room visits.

Researchers at the University of Illinois and Georgia State University conducted that study. It noted that for each day particulate air pollution increased by about 10% over typical levels — or 1 microgram per cubic meter — there was an increase in deaths over the next three days of 0.7 per 1 million people over 65, and a jump in emergency room visits among the elderly by 2.7 per 1 million people.

Stanford researchers concluded that at least 1,200 “excess deaths” took place between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, along with about 4,800 extra emergency room visits.

“These are hidden deaths,” Burke said. “These are people who were probably already sick, but for whom air pollution made them even sicker.”

Burke added that Stanford’s analysis didn’t include very young children or people under 65 with serious respiratory or heart conditions. The research doesn’t include Oregon or Washington. Both states have also experienced wildfires.

During the wildfires, smoke levels broke records in the state. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District called 30 “Spare the Air” days in a row from Aug. 18 to Sept. 16, according to the newspaper.

Soot levels exceeded federal health standards for 19 days. Air quality was worse in the Sierra, the Sacramento Valley, and parts of Southern California, where it reached 10 to 15 times the federal health standard, according to the Mercury News.

Other researchers not involved with the study say they agree with its findings.

“It makes total sense,” Dr. John Balmes, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and a member of the California Air Resources Board, told the newspaper. “I think it’s a fine preliminary analysis. It should give us pause.”

Balmes said if people smell smoke, they should stay indoors and close windows and doors.

“I don’t want to panic people who are healthy and without pre-existing disease, but we should reduce exposure as much as possible,” Balmes said. “You should stay indoors, and not be outside any more than you have to be. Exercising outdoors when the air quality is bad is particularly problematic.”

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Heavy smoke that has filled the California air from wildfires could be responsible for as many as 3,000 deaths, according to researchers at Stanford University. The Mercury News reports that health officials say the smoke has killed more people than the flames from the...
California, smoke, wildfires, deaths, stanford, pollution
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2020-25-23
Wednesday, 23 September 2020 11:25 AM
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