We Need to Better Protect Communities from the Climate Crisis, COVID-19, and Wildfires

Darya Minovi

Oct. 5, 2020

Amidst the president and First Lady testing positive for COVID-19, an embarrassing spectacle of a presidential "debate," and a pandemic that has now claimed more than 200,000 lives in the United States and 1 million worldwide, the West Coast wildfires have lost the attention of the national news cycle. But California and nearby states are still very much ablaze.

As I write, 70 active large fires are raging in 10 western states. More than a third of these are in California, where more than 2 million acres of land are currently burning (an area larger than the state of Delaware). Four of the five largest fires in the state’s history started in the last two months.

These historic fires have already killed at least 35 people, forced thousands to evacuate, and exposed hundreds of thousands to extremely hazardous levels of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Ambient Air Quality Standard, or maximum safe exposure level, for PM2.5 is 35 ug/m3 (averaged over a 24-hour period). On one particularly smoky day, PM2.5 concentrations near Mammoth Lakes, California, reached 660 ug/m3, nearly 19 times greater than EPA’s health standard.

A wealth of evidence links PM2.5 exposure to adverse health outcomes, such as heart and lung disease and premature death. Children, the elderly, outdoor workers, and people with related health issues are most vulnerable to these effects. To illustrate the implications for affected communities, one study in Massachusetts found that for every 10 ug/m3 increase in acute or short-term PM2.5 exposure, there was a nearly 3 percent increase in pollution-related mortality.

Particle pollution on its own is harmful to our health, but research has also linked air pollution to COVID-19 deaths. An oft-cited study from Harvard University found that a 1 ug/m3 increase in PM2.5 is associated with an 8 percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate, showing that even a marginal increase in particle pollution can significantly impact the outcomes of this pandemic. Similarly, a recent study by the State University of New York at Syracuse and ProPublica found that in Louisiana and New York, an increase in the respiratory hazard index (a combined score from EPA’s 2014 National Air Toxics Assessment) in rural counties was associated with an increase in COVID-19 death rates.

Furthermore, evacuations to emergency shelters may make it more difficult for people to socially distance safely or to access disinfectants and other necessary supplies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is even weighing in, reminding people that cloth masks used to limit the spread of COVID-19 will not shield against wildfire smoke.

Unfortunately, these dual disasters may already be harming Californians. In his briefing last Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom noted that while the state has made strides in decreasing the number of COVID-19 cases, early data shows that progress has slowed.

This historic wildfire season is a stark reminder that during the many preventable tragedies of 2020, climate change and its effects continue to intensify unabated. Meanwhile, Trump’s EPA carries on cherry-picking public health research and ignoring scientific best practices to justify regulatory rollbacks that endanger the environment and our health. When California’s natural resources secretary asked Trump to recognize the impacts of climate change and wildfires on our forests, the president flatly ignored his plea, saying, “It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.”

When the Trump era finally comes to a close, the western United States – and the rest of the country – will look to the next administration and Congress to not only take climate change seriously, but to implement effective, comprehensive policies and programs to combat it and to prevent record-breaking wildfire seasons from becoming the "new normal."

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