SANTA CRUZ, California (AP) – Fires that produce dense plumes of smoke as they burn huge swaths of the west coast of the United States have exposed millions of people to dangerous pollution levels, resulting in spike in emergency room visits and potentially thousands of deaths among the elderly and infirm, according to an Associated Press analysis of pollution data and interviews with doctors, health authorities and researchers.
Smoking at concentrations that topped government rankings for health hazards and lasted at least one day in shrouded counties inhabited by more than 8 million people in five states in the past few weeks, AP̵
Major cities in Oregon, which was particularly hard hit, last month it suffered the highest levels of pollution ever recorded when powerful winds overcrowded wildfires that were burning in remote areas and plunged them to the fringes of densely populated Portland.
Medical complications began to arise while communities were still shrouded in smoke, including hundreds of additional daily emergency room visits in Oregon, according to state health officials.
“It was brutal for me,” said Barb Trout, a 64-year-old retiree living south of Portland in Willamette Valley. She was taken to the emergency room twice by ambulance following severe asthma reactions, something that had never happened to her before.
Trout took refuge inside as soon as the smoke poured into the valley just after Labor Day, but within days she had an asthma attack that left her breathless and took her to the emergency room. Two weeks later, when smoke from California fires poured into the valley, she had an even more violent reaction that Trout described as a near-death experience.
“It hit me fast and hard __ harder than the first one. I wasn’t even breathing, “she recalled. After stabilizing on the drug, Trout was sent home but the specter of a third attack now haunts her. She and her husband installed an alarm system so she could push a button. panic when in trouble for help.
“It put a whole new level in my life,” he said. “I’m trying not to live in fear, but I have to be very careful indeed.”
In nearby Salem, Trout Martin Johnson’s pulmonologist said people with existing respiratory problems started showing up at his hospital or calling his office almost immediately after the smoke arrived, many struggling to breathe. Salem is located in Marion County, which has experienced eight days of pollution at dangerous levels in a short period, some of the worst conditions seen in the West in the past two decades, according to AP’s analysis.
Most of Johnson’s patients are expected to recover, but he said some may have permanent loss of lung function. Then there are the “hidden” victims which Johnson suspects died from heart attacks or other problems caused by poor air quality, but whose cause of death will be attributed to something else.
“Many will not show up to the hospital or die at home or go to hospice for other reasons, such as pneumonia or other complications,” Johnson said.
Based on previous studies on pollution-related deaths and the number of people exposed to recent fires, researchers at Stanford University have estimated that as many as 3,000 people over the age of 65 in California alone have died prematurely after being exposed to smoke. over a six-week period starting in August. 1. According to researchers from the University of Washington, hundreds more deaths may have occurred in Washington in several weeks of poor air from the fires.
The results for both states were not published in peer-reviewed journals. No such estimate was available for Oregon.
Fires are a regular occurrence in western states, but have become more intense and dangerous as a changing climate dries up dense forests of trees and undergrowth from decades of suppressing fires. What makes the smoke from these fires dangerous they are particles too small to be seen with the naked eye that can be inhaled and cause respiratory problems.
On any given day, western fires can produce 10 times more particles than those produced by all other sources of pollution, including emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities, said Shawn Urbanski, a smoke scientist with the US Forest Service.
Fires across the West emitted more than a million tons of particles in 2012, 2015 and 2017, and nearly as many in 2018, the year that a fire in Paradise, California, killed 85 people and burned 14,000 homes, generating a dense plume that blanketed portions of Northern California for weeks. The figures for 2017 and 2018 are preliminary.
A confluence of weather events made the smoke especially intense this year: First, strong winds up and down the coast turned the fires into a rage, followed in Oregon by a weather reversal that trapped smoke near the soil and made it inevitable for days. Hundreds of miles south of San Francisco, the smoke turned day into night, casting a mysterious orange blanket over a city where, even before the pandemic, face masks had sometimes become commonplace to protect against smoke.
AP’s smoke exposure analysis was based on US Environmental Protection Agency data compiled from hundreds of air quality monitoring stations. Census data was used to determine the number of people living in the affected areas of Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and Montana.
At least 38 million people live in pollution-prone counties considered unhealthy for the general population for five days, according to the AP analysis. This included more than 25 million people in California, 7.2 million in Washington, 3.5 million in Oregon, 1 million in Idaho and 299,000 people in Montana.
State totals for the number of people exposed to unhealthy air on a given day were taken from counties where at least one monitoring site has registered unhealthy air.
Scientists studying long-term health problems have found correlations between smoke exposure and reduced lung function, weakened immune systems, and higher rates of flu. This includes studies from smoke-covered communities in northwestern Montana for weeks in 2017.
“The particulate matter enters the lungs, goes deep, flushes the lining, and eventually enters the bloodstream,” said University of Montana professor Erin Landguth. “We are seeing the effects.”
The coronavirus raises a growing number of concerns: An emerging body of research links increased air pollution with higher infection rates and symptom severity, said Gabriela Goldfarb, chief environmental health officer for the Oregon Health Authority.
Climate experts say residents of the west coast and northern Rockies should prepare for more frequent smoke events, as warm temperatures and drought fuel larger and more intense fires.
Their message is that climate change will not bring worse conditions: they are already here. The scale of this year’s fires is pushing the limit “in the severity of the fires, modeled to 2050, Harvard University climate researcher Loretta Mickley said.
“The bad years will increase. The smoke will increase, “said Jeffrey Pierce, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University.” It’s not unreasonable that we could get a typical 2020 year every two years. “
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
On Twitter follow Matthew Brown: @MatthewBrownAP and Camille Fassett: @camfassett.