California Wildfires As Deadly As 9/11?

NASA’s Terra satellite on Monday, Aug. 22, 2020, captured a view that showed a pall of wildfire smoke covering most of California. Photo: NASA

“There’s evidence that exposure to air pollution worsens COVID-19 outcomes.” 

‘Hidden cost’ of wildfire smoke: Stanford researchers estimate up to 3,000 indirect deaths

In the September 11 attacks, 2,977 people were killed by highjackers. Scientists project that the 2020 California wildfire season may take an even higher toll. 

Sep. 24, 2020

More than two dozen people have died as a direct result of California’s devastating wildfires so far this year.

But the actual number of lives lost because of them may have been much higher.

Researchers at Stanford University estimate that the pollution from an unprecedented stretch of heavy wildfire smoke is likely to have led to at least 1,200, and up to 3,000, deaths in California between Aug 1. and Sept. 10 that otherwise would not have occurred.

They refer to these deaths — among people 65 and older, many of whom had underlying conditions — as “excess deaths.”

“You could think of it as the hidden cost of air pollution exposure,” said Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at Stanford whose team estimated the impacts.

Burke’s team was interested in the potential health costs, mortality in particular, for the people in California subject to poor air quality for almost a month straight.

They used two numbers: one that tracked how bad the air quality was, and another that would estimate the likely health toll of prolonged exposure.

For that estimate, they relied on existing literature about air pollution exposure and mortality from detailed Medicare data.

Burke said the estimate by his team has not been peer-reviewed, and the actual data on mortality will not be available for several months.

Also, he said, it’s not known whether the pandemic could further increase the number of excess deaths, or decrease the estimate, considering that many people were already staying inside to keep safe from the coronavirus.

But Burke said his prediction is that the pandemic has likely made the numbers even worse.

“There’s evidence that exposure to air pollution worsens COVID-19 outcomes,” he said. “People are already more vulnerable than they would have been otherwise …” Read more.