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Wildfires in Pacific Northwest push air pollution across North America, study finds

Experts say spikes in pollution levels are likely to impact consumers’ long-term health

Wildfire concept
Photo (c) lightasafeather - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research explored how wildfires in the Pacific Northwest can have wide-reaching consequences. 

According to their findings, these wildfires are likely to cause surges in pollution levels across all of North America. As a result, this can increase the risk for several pollution-related health complications

“Wildfire emissions have increased so substantially that they’re changing the annual pattern of air quality across North America,” said researcher Rebecca Buchholz. “It’s quite clear that there is a new peak of air pollution in August that didn’t used to exist.” 

Pollution’s impact on health

For the study, the researchers tracked wildfire emissions over the past 20 years and used a computer model to understand their impact. The data focused on three areas – the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, and the central U.S. 

The study showed that wildfire emissions greatly impacted pollution levels across the United States. The team observed that carbon monoxide spiked, especially in the late summer months, across all of North America following peak wildfire seasons in the Pacific Northwest. 

Based on wildfire and pollution data from across the U.S. and parts of Asia, the researchers were able to narrow down their results to determine that the spikes in pollution were directly related to the wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. 

“Multiple lines of evidence point to the worsening wildfires in the Pacific Northwest as the cause of degraded air quality,” Buchholz said. “It’s particularly unfortunate that these fires are undermining the gains that society has made in reducing pollution overall.” 

The fear now is that this spike in air pollution will negatively affect consumers’ health – especially since the source of the pollution comes from wildfire emissions. These types of pollutants have a history of impacting respiratory health, cardiovascular symptoms, and pregnancy outcomes. 

“It’s clear that more research is needed into the health implications of all this smoke,” Buchholz said. “We may already be seeing consequences of these fires on the health of residents who live hundreds or even thousands of miles downwind.” 

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