Last year’s wildfire season raged across the West Coast with unprecedented severity. With it came dangerous air quality as residents were exposed to more intense levels of pollution for longer periods of time. Now, a new report from IQAir, an air purifier company that does annual surveys of global air quality, has concluded that the fires helped make North America the only place in the world where air quality worsened in 2020.
Collecting data from governments and non-governmental organizations that monitor air quality, IQAir found that 77 of the world’s 100 most polluted cities were concentrated in California, Oregon, and Washington this past September, which tracks with the wildfire season. In 2020, 38 percent of U.S. cities included in their database surpassed the World Health Organization’s target levels for PM2.5, or fine particulate matter. This is a marked uptick from 2019 when 21 percent of cities outpaced the recommendations.
The decrease in air quality happened despite COVID-19 restrictions, which limited travel and industrial activity, causing improvements in most places. The fact that climate change somewhat counterbalanced that is alarming, considering IQAir estimates that pandemic restrictions were accompanied by a 10 to 30 percent short-term reduction of PM2.5.
PM2.5, the type of fine particulate matter addressed by the report, refers to microscopic particles that are too small for the respiratory tract to block out and are easily absorbed into the bloodstream once they enter the lungs. Produced primarily by combustion, they are considered to be the most adverse to human health and are linked to a range of diseases. They’ve been shown to increase the risk of asthma, cancers, respiratory inflammation, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, hospital visits, and premature death.
An increase in air pollution is bad in any year. But even in parts of the country where the air quality was less affected by the wildfires than by pandemic restrictions, the toll of COVID-19 tracked the racial geography of air pollution.
A Harvard study published in November found that counties with historically elevated levels of PM2.5 also had higher COVID-19 mortality rates due to an overlap in comorbidities. The study also found that counties with PM2.5 rates greater than or equal to 8 µg/m3 have higher rates of poverty, fewer hospital beds, and a higher percentage of Black residents.
Each year, around 200,000 people die in the U.S. from illnesses related to air pollution as it is defined by the EPA. (And the EPA’s air quality standards are severely lacking in the breadth of their assessment.) People living in poverty, men, and Black folks are the most at-risk—and a 2017 Harvard study found that Black people are three times as likely as the rest of the population to die from exposure to poor air quality. IQAir’s report also notes that people of color face elevated exposure to PM2.5, specifically, and, as has been well reported, Black Americans have among the most disproportionately adverse outcomes should they contract COVID-19.
As the restrictions from the coronavirus loosen, it’s likely that air pollution rates will rise. COVID infection rates could increase, too, due to new variants of the disease. Then the everyday effects of air quality on human health during the pandemic will coincide with a spike in infections and deaths. And mass death itself has already had an effect on air quality: In southern Caliifornian, the South Coast Air Quality Management District usually limits the number of cremations per month to restrict emissions. In January, those mandates were lifted at the request of the Los Angeles County coroner and the county’s public health department because the death rates had doubled, and the pandemic had left too many bodies in the morgue.