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Worldwide wildfires increase health risks of bad air

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DULUTH -- As huge swathes of Australia’s Outback burn in wildfires spurred by drought, health experts in the U.S. warned Thursday that more heat and more fires means more unhealthy air to breathe.

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The Natural Resources Defense Council released a list of 31 states — including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa — that saw air quality degraded in 2011 because of smoke from wildfires, some of them within the state and others far away.

The report concluded that climate change is spurring more heat, more drought and more wildfires that are leading to unhealthy air.

“Even if you don’t live near wildfires your health may be affected by their smoke,” Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist with NRDC’s Health and Environment Program, said in a teleconference Thursday.

The NRDC report, using 2011 data, ranked Texas as the state with the most people exposed to a week or more of bad air from wildfire smoke. Minnesota ranked 20th, with 15,000 people exposed to nearby smoke and about 1.6 million people affected by distant smoke. Wisconsin ranked 23rd and Iowa 10th.

In 2011, fueled by a dry summer and drought that lingered into autumn, several major wildfires burned across northern Minnesota, including the Pagami Creek fire in the Superior National Forest — the state’s largest wildfire in at least 80 years. Smoke from that fire was tracked as far away as Chicago.

The study found some 212 million people across the nation were exposed to wildfire smoke in 2011. The NRDC said it was the first time the health effects of wildfire smoke had been mapped using satellite data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Wildfire smoke contains dozens of toxic compounds, but fine particles that can enter lungs that are the most problematic, said Dr. Patrick L. Kinney, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Kinney said smoke from fires hundreds, even thousands of miles away may be an issue. In northern Minnesota, for example, residents often report smelling smoke from distant fires in Canada.

“If you can smell it … or see the haze, I’d be concerned from a health point of view,” Kinney said. “Even globally, fine particulate matter can move thousands of miles.”

The health experts said there is no system to track how many people have become ill from wildfire smoke, or deaths related to smoke exposure, but they have urged fast action to limit greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change to cut back on the number of wildfires that are spurred by long hot and dry weather patterns, which the Environmental Protection Agency says is one indicator of climate change.

Other states with large populations in areas affected by smoky conditions for a week or more include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee.

John Myers | Forum News Service

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