Firefighter fighting a forest fire in Guadalajara (Mexico) on April 24, 2012 HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP via Getty Images
Wildfires that are similar to the ones that ravaged parts of Siberia, North America and Greece this year are also taking a visible but fatal toll on human health. A new estimate shows that the proportion of deaths caused by short-term smoke exposure from fires is almost as high as heatwave-related deaths.
This is not surprising, as wildfires are rare. Yuming Guo, a Monash University professor in Melbourne, Australia, says that smoke is a problem for public health.
Guo and his associates compared data on daily deaths due to all causes in 749 cities across 43 countries between 2000-2016 with modeling of the exposure of those people to PM2.5 (small particulates) from wildfires. After adjusting for temperature, they linked wildfire pollution to 33,510 deaths per year, or 0.62 percent of all deaths. Heat-related deaths, however, are thought to account for 0.91 percent of all deaths.
At 3.04 percent, Guatemala was the country with the highest number of deaths due to PM2.5 from the fires. Paraguay and Mexico were close behind. Despite recent wildfires in these areas, the US had 0.26 percent and Greece 0.33 percent.
The absolute number of deaths due to wildfire smoke in the world is likely to be significantly underestimated, since it doesn't include countries like Indonesia or Malaysia that are frequently affected by wildfire pollution. Guo says that more widespread monitoring of PM2.5 at the ground would be helpful in determining a more accurate figure.
Guo and another team also studied the effects of wildfire pollution on different age groups in Brazil. They found that older people and children are more susceptible to its harmful effects. Guo suggests that governments should concentrate resources on these groups during fire season.
Guo says that the new research provides yet another reason for climate change to be addressed, as it is fueling wildfires. It is essential to reduce bushfires. This will also mean reducing our CO2 emissions.
Journal reference: Lancet Planetary Health , DOI: 10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00173-X
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