More than 80% of premature deaths from small smoke particles in the United States result directly from human-started fires. This is the result of a study published today in the journal IOP Publishing Environmental Research Letters.
The new study, led by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, analyzes the impact of smoke particles on air quality in the United States. Their research shows that human-ignited fires are responsible for more than 67% of tiny smoke particles called PM2.5 in the United States of America. These particles are known to deteriorate air quality, causing respiratory illnesses and premature death.
The level of shooting activity in the United States is on the rise. The research team estimates that smoke from human-ignited fires was responsible for 20,000 premature deaths in 2018 alone, a year with a high frequency of fire incidents – a large part of which was linked to human ignition such as agricultural and human fires. This is 270% more than in 2003, when there was a low frequency of fire events. The research highlights that during years of high fire activity, there are much higher concentrations of PM smoke2.5 Up in the air.
Dr Therese Carter, lead author of the study, said: “Not only do fires threaten human lives, infrastructure and ecosystems, but they are also a major cause of concern in terms of air quality. High levels of smoke exposure can negatively affect human health, leading to conditions such as “Respiratory infections, lung cancer, heart disease and even premature births. Our results show that a large and large portion of harmful smoke particles are produced directly from human-ignited fires.”
The team used the Global Fire Emissions Database to measure agricultural fire emissions, and then classified these fires into two categories: human ignition versus natural ignition. Applying a chemical transport model, they simulate the concentration of smoke particles across the United States, and conclude that a significant portion of fine particles2.5 In the United States they are caused by human-ignited fires, and therefore have the ability to manage them.
To reduce the devastating effects of pollution from tiny smoke particles, the team recommends an approach that focuses on ignition. State agencies can implement management plans to limit agricultural fires to periods when weather conditions minimize health effects. However, human-started wildfires are difficult to manage due to their sporadic and unplanned nature.
“We now know that humans can play a pivotal role in particle reduction,” Carter concludes2.5 Concentrations, we must put policies, regulations and management plans in place to reduce human-made fires. Efforts to reduce human-started fires must focus on specific areas and types of ignition in order to be most successful. Identifying and acknowledging the sources of these particulate matter is the first step to a cleaner, healthier future.”