Exposure to pollution from wildfires is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths around the world each year, according to a study published in Lancet Planetary Health Wednesday, which the researchers say should highlight the need for rapid action to mitigate climate change and manage vegetation.
Fine particulate matter, a form of wildfire pollution, is responsible for some 335,000 deaths every year, according to a peer-reviewed analysis of tens of millions of deaths in 749 cities around the world between 2000 and 2016.
This includes nearly 7,000 deaths from heart-related issues and 3,500 from breathing problems, the global team of researchers found in what is the first global study into the impact of wildfire-related pollution.
Of the many pollutants emitted by wildfires, the researchers said fine particulate matter is the most concerning as it is able to enter the bloodstream through the lungs and its chemical makeup usually makes it more toxic than that from other fires.
According to the data, Japan has the most deaths related to wildfire pollution, with over 7,000 each year in 47 cities.
The U.S., with nearly 3,200 annually in 210 cities, also ranked as one of the countries with the most deaths related to wildfire smoke, the researchers found, alongside Mexico (more than 3,000 in 10 cities), South Africa (around 5,300 in 52 cities) and China (around 1,200 in 15 cities).
The researchers cautioned that the study had not been able to capture the full extent of wildfire pollution during the study period, did not consider other wildfire pollutants like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and did not factor in the other health consequences of such pollution like injury or worsened mental health.
Yuming Guo, the study’s lead researcher, told Forbes the frequency and effects of wildfires and their smoke will increase as a result of climate change. This goes beyond cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, Guo said, noting that “air pollution affects all body functions” and has been linked to issues involving mental health and suicide, diabetes, the kidneys and the brain.
What To Watch For
In the U.S., it’s not just areas where wildfires rage that need to worry about the effects of air pollution. “Wildfire smoke can be spread to other areas of the U.S. and other countries,” Guo told Forbes, suggesting people to “take actions to protect their health.”
Wildfires have torched vast swathes of the U.S. and Europe amid tinder dry weather this year. While they are a natural and important part of some ecosystems, the scale and severity of the wildfires burning is extreme and many regions, including parts of the U.S., have endured record breaking seasons in recent years. Experts believe these will only get worse as human-driven climate change increases the likelihood of the dry and hot conditions favorable to wildfires. This fits into a pattern of human-driven climate change that is making dangerous extreme weather conditions more likely. The Lancet study adds to growing research that suggests toxins in the air can have profound effects on our minds and bodies. Higher and more severe instances of suicide, depression and schizophrenia have been linked to air pollution. Long term exposure has been linked with reduced cognitive intelligence, especially among men.