In 2020, wildfires throughout the Western U.S. blanketed the country in smoke from coast to coast. People as far away as New York, Boston, and Washington were photographing exceptionally brilliant sunsets and posting them on social media. But the same smoke that tinted the sun a brilliant orange was tainting lungs, with 50 times more people in the U.S. exposed to dangerous levels of wildfire smoke than 10 years earlier.
Wildfires, much like storms such as hurricanes, are increasing in severity due to climate change. And winds can carry the health risks of smoke for thousands of miles. So emergency rooms and clinics far from the fires must respond to more people suffering from asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Communities in California and other Western states have been ratcheting up efforts to protect residents from smoke, but cities and towns across the country need to become “smoke-ready,” which the U.S. Forest Service defines as “the knowledge and ability to stay reasonably safe and healthy during smoke episodes.”
Recent research highlights four elements of smoke-readiness: understanding health impacts, knowing interventions to reduce health risks, access to accurate air-quality data, and, crucially, access to clean indoor air. New federal funding opportunities can support measures to get safer air into buildings while reducing the planet-heating emissions that fuel wildfires.
Know the risks of wildfire smoke
Though everyone is at risk from wildfire smoke pollution, a smoke-ready community must understand the populations most at risk: children, the elderly, outdoor workers, and those with preexisting medical conditions. Health harms can include decreased lung function, exacerbation of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and increased cardiac and neurologic events.
Research published in 2022 in the journal BMC Public Health found that prolonged wildfire smoke exposure also affects mental health. The research identified impacts on anxiety, depression, and stress, as well as social effects such as increased isolation.
Communication about all the physical and mental harm that wildfire smoke pollution can do is critical because most people do not understand the extent of the risks. A research partnership in Washington state surveyed rural residents and found that though many participants were concerned for kids or grandparents, they didn’t think they were personally harmed by smoke.
Interventions to reduce health risks
Recent research shows effective actions that can help reduce the significant but avoidable physical health impacts from smoke. Key interventions identified by public health experts include:
- Preparing health care systems for wildfire smoke
- Identifying and educating vulnerable populations
- Minimizing outdoor activities
- Improving access to cleaner air environments
- Increasing use of air filtration devices and personal respirators
- Aggressive management of chronic diseases and traditional risk factors
Preventive action can help communities respond appropriately when events occur.
Access to accurate air-quality information
Protecting people from dangerous smoke requires accurate air-quality data, which is more available in urban regions with EPA-regulated air-quality monitoring stations. This can leave rural areas relatively uninformed, but growing use of community air monitoring can fill these gaps.
A network of low-cost sensors in homes and community buildings can alert people to varying air quality across neighborhoods and within counties. Recent research exploring the motivations of households with monitors found that residents used the air-quality data to guide their decision-making around minimizing risk, such as wearing an N95 mask, staying indoors for exercise, or spending outdoor time elsewhere in the region.
The Environmental Protection Agency has partnered with states, communities, and tribes to offer air sensor loan programs. Both outdoor and indoor air sensors can empower communities and households across the U.S. to make informed decisions based on their local air quality.
Access to clean air
Access to clean air is the ultimate solution to preventing health risks from smoke exposure. Recommendations to “stay indoors” can incorrectly assume significantly better indoor air quality. A study of the 2020 fire season assessed indoor and outdoor air quality data from PurpleAir sensors in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. It found that indoor particulate matter concentrations tripled on fire days. Homes built before 2000 were much more susceptible to indoor smoke infiltration.
Fortunately, air filters can help, particularly HEPA-based portable air cleaners, and they work even in households with high smoke infiltration. Air filter loan programs can make filters more available to low-income vulnerable populations. The Bay Area Air District loan program is a good example, providing over 3,000 portable air filtration units for low-income residents with asthma.
Designated clean air centers at community buildings can serve as a refuge for those with high smoke-infiltrating homes. However, effective shelter utilization requires consideration beyond HVAC and building design. Information about the centers must also reach vulnerable populations, centers must be staffed throughout the day, and people need access to adequate transportation, as demonstrated by a study done in California.
A holistic picture for buildings
As people spend more time indoors during fire season, the air inside a home or building must be healthy. Fortunately, recent federal funding supports building upgrades that can improve efficiency and air quality. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provides $50 million for public schools to improve their air quality and reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. The funding can create on-ramps for more schools to serve as community-designated clean air centers.
The Inflation Reduction Act also includes $1 billion for high-efficiency residential building codes throughout the U.S., along with almost $9 billion in efficiency and electrification rebates for households to reduce energy use and adopt electric appliances. Additionally, the law added funding to provide $53 million for 132 air monitoring projects in 37 states, focused particularly on underserved, historically marginalized communities. These monitors will provide accurate information to communities about their air quality, including during smoke events.
This funding sets up the U.S. to achieve a new era for safer, more resilient buildings and communities. However, much more must be done to prepare communities so that all are smoke-ready.
Savannah D’Evelyn is an environmental health scientist and bio-social scientist at the University of Washington and Hadley Tallackson is a former policy analyst at Energy Innovation LLC®. Energy Innovation is a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.