Wildfires and Global Health – Toxic Exhaust

In thinking about the Wildfires and global health, I thought back instead of forward. My co-author, Attorney Gordon Johnson[1], and I were teenagers back in the late 1960s and early 70s when air pollution was the concern of scientists, environmentalists and a generation becoming aware of the hazards of an ‘uncontrolled progress for the sake of progress’ mentality. Baby Boomers were enjoying a new prosperity. The car industry was growing to fill demand and industrialization was in overdrive. Our largest population centers were becoming accustomed to a perpetual haze enveloping their cities and smog alerts were becoming commonplace. The Air Quality Index became as routine as the daily weather forecast almost overnight. Air pollution was a theme at the media forefront much in the way climate change is now.

Assessing the impact of Wildfires and Global must also include the creatures of the forest. We are measuring the impact of the wildfires based upon human deaths and acreage. The impact on wildlife is incalculable.

Why is a lawyers blog page about carbon monoxide taking the time to discuss wildfires? Because it is all about the air we breathe. The air we breathe is part of the atmosphere which has made Planet Earth a uniquely viable place for life. Add carbon monoxide, CO to the ambient atmosphere we breathe indoors, you get carbon monoxide poisoning. Add too much CO2 to the the atmosphere of Planet Earth and life as we know it may cease.

I first learned about carbon monoxide because it was a principal pollutant. The reason automobiles were equipped with catalytic converters was to eliminate the carbon monoxide in their exhaust, a major component of urban smog. I remember having to take my car for testing every year to make sure it passed standards. I lived in Anchorage, Alaska then. Anchorage was a smog prone city due to temperature inversions that left our entire valley in a cloud of smog many days during the winter. One never forgets warnings to stay indoors due to hazardous air conditions.

The state of California, one of the densest populations of automobiles, has always taken the lead in reducing emissions since the Clean Air Act was enacted. Today, California leads the fight against the Trump administration for fuel efficiency standards. Despite heated opposition, the Trump administration rolled back fuel efficiency standards from 54.5mpg to 40mpg by 2025, a move which would virtually squash any pressure on the industry to improve. As a result, almost a billion more tons of greenhouse gases will be released in the next five years. The only people really happy with the rollback of fuel efficiency standards are the oil companies who will be seeing an upsurge in demand. Even the auto industry is not on board entirely with rollbacks as it sees less support in the marketplace from both the public and government. It is difficult to compete in a global market if your government is not supporting your need to be the most competitive. And it will be difficult for the US auto industry to compete with foreign car makers when the public is value shopping and wanting the best best fuel economy for their dollar. The very door we opened back in the 60s and 70s when the public opted for Japanese autos because of their cost and fuel efficiency.

Wildfires and Global Health – The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act has seen many changes over the years. It began in 1955 with the first initial funding of research to determine the nature and seriousness of the air pollution issue. It finally came into law as a means to control air pollution in 1963. In 1965 it was amended to create standards to control auto emissions. In 1967 it grew to look at other sources, stationary and mobile. By 1970, every state had air quality programs in place because of the federal funding and legislation put in place in the 60s. It wasn’t until 1990 that we began to legislate other air quality concerns like acid rain, toxic substances and ozone depletion. At that time the government took a hard look at gas itself, establishing RVP standards to control evaporative emissions from cars and the development of new formulations for gasoline.

Baby Boomers are really the first generation which has experienced a new view of our planet. The human population previously had become accustomed to a belief that all things were unlimited and excess led to extinctions and major changes to the topography of the planet. By the 60s and 70s it was coming to light that all things were not bountiful, and maybe just maybe, things might run out. The planet was not as all forgiving as originally thought.

Which brings us to the next concern of my youth, there was only so much petroleum on the planet. It became clear that either alternatives would have to be found or eventually our entire civilization would be in big trouble. Projections warned that petroleum could be depleted in as little as fifty years. We watched the oil companies gobble up solar and alternative options squashing the competition and worried that those who controlled oil controlled civilization as we know it. We weren’t entirely off. Although oil seems to still be readily accessible, we are delving into any of the more sensitive ecosystems of the planet to meet demand. From attempts to open the arctic to drilling to offshore drilling to sonic exploration, we are impacting ecosystems that are essential to our existence.

In the midst of this unprecedented search for oil we see an escalation in the amount of carbon fuels burned. We still have a public oblivious to the need for drastic lifestyle changes, an administration with a looter mentality and an industry that is profit driven. As emissions begin to rise again, we will see an emergence of more health issues, and a greater impact on a planet already in trouble.

If that wasn’t enough, the surge in devastating wildfires has now been added to the mix. Don’t call it global warming, that term opens the door for bad jokes during blizzards, “so this is global warming?” Call it what it is – Climate Change.  And I want to stress, what we are seeing is not some cyclical change in temperatures theorized by climate change deniers but a real and worrisome change evident in the most vigorous ecosystems everywhere on the planet.

The Cycle of Fire and the Atmosphere

Small changes in temperature are leading to drier conditions, setting the stage for the types of deadly wildfires we have seen in Australia, California, and Oregon. Oregon, of all places! Denser populations and climate change are working together to create conditions which we will not see an end to anytime soon. If Oregon is burning, where next? We need a global assessment of Wildfires and Global Health.

Wildfires and Global Health – A Negative Synergistic Loop

The entire climate change cycle creates a synergistic cycle of negative impacts that build upon each other. While all the smoke in the air might seem like something that would lower earths temperatures, that isn’t the net effect. White snow reflects sunlight, keeping glaciers intact during sunny periods. But when particulates in the air (the unburned hydrocarbons – not the CO2 or CO) fall from the sky to glaciers, it changes the color of these glaciers from white to gray. Gray glaciers absorb more light. Gray glaciers melt faster than white glaciers. See https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-50573623 This is one of the least accounted for phenomenon’s used to statistically predict when climate change will require huge population shifts.

And if the triple apocalyptic events of this week (wildfires, hurricanes and COVID-19) weren’t enough, yesterday we got word of a huge crisis with the Antarctic glacial shelf. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2020/09/14/glaciers-breaking-antarctica-pine-island-thwaites/ Ice on water floats, so a melting floating glacier doesn’t have a net effect on sea level. But glaciers on land are nature’s way of lowering ocean levels to store on land. When glaciers on land melt, the oceans rise. Glacial melt on Greenland and the Antarctic will result in a rise in sea level. This isn’t a political debate, it is simple physics you can demonstrate in your bath tub. But that ice floats is only the beginning of understand Wildfires and Global Health.

If you believe you are not impacted by fires in Oregon or California, please consider. Wildfires produce CO2and other greenhouse gases which affect the climate for years. So while burning gas has contributed to climate change globally creating a surge in wildfires, the wildfires themselves are producing gases and particles which in turn affect the climate. It’s a cycle of destruction that will impact all earthlings on many levels. One immediate concern involves a study of plants. Plants reacting to more CO2 in the air, either from pollutants or from wildfires, grow quickly and as a result mature with a lower level of nutrition. Studies involving the insects that feed on plants indicate that the insects had to ingest much more plant material to survive and predict that humans also will be seeing a drop in the nutritional value of plants. This impacts an entire food chain. Last year’s wildfires alone basically matched all the auto emissions for the year, in essence doubling the carbon footprint. It is a loop that it seems impossible to escape. This year, just the last two weeks, has been far worse.

Anyone who has ever flown in a small airplane understands the additional impact of bare acreage. If you have never experienced the sudden uplift you get when flying over a bare field after a patch of woods then you can’t appreciate the huge difference in hot air rising from bare ground. It creates strong currents that also impact our climate. And wildfires are now thought to release many more particulates into the air which deflect light. There are so many components involved in wildfires, all acting together, merging with the products of an industrialized planet and it becomes impossible to still claim that this is all part of a natural process.

Even now, scientists are warning that the changes seen in many ecosystems, both fragile and vigorous, are raising alarms for massive changes in a far shorter period of time than thought. It is impossible to pinpoint all of the cause and repercussions of Wildfires and Global Health as there are so many forces at work. Human expansion and population growth, toxic contamination, temperature changes due to burins carbon fuel, loss of water…it all becomes a web of intertwining elements that reach far beyond the destruction of natural wildfires. But in conjunction, we have yet to determine the ultimate result.

Insects have proven a very reliable early warning system for the environment as a whole. Several studies world-wide have reported a substantial decline in insect populations. We think of a wildfire’s devastating impact on the wildlife within its scope but the damage to ecosystems is far wider reaching. Especially in combination with human caused changes. While scientists want to argue both ways, consider this: CO2 makes plants develop faster, becoming less nutritious. Insects eat more and mature faster in a shorter period of time but due to decreased nutrients, insects produce fewer offspring, and carry that on up the food chain and you begin to appreciate how a small change in temperature and CO2 begins to impact entire ecosystems. Some scientists will argue the opposite, the accelerated plant growth will cause a surge. But that is simply not substantiated. The only surge will occur in those species not considered necessarily beneficial. An ecosystem thrown off at the basic level is an event that is unprecedented. We simply have nothing to measure that type of devastation against. We have been very absorbed with what happens with those at the top of the food chain, humans, for many years. Our planet’s history provides enough warnings to give us scenarios to worry about. But we have never faced a total breakdown of the ecosystem from the bottom up.

In 1970, we had our first Earth Day. At the time, Earth Day was a fairly tame political issue, in contrast to the Vietnam war protests and the fight for civil rights. While it was billed as the big jumping off point for protect the planet environmental causes, it largely got lost in otherwise turbulent times. Our concern is the 2020 wildfire crisis will as well. Like Covid, atmospheric catastrophe’s don’t discriminate. And we won’t just be able to wear a mask, even a gas mask, to minimize the impact of this crisis. The current world population is 7 billion, projected to reach 11 billion by the time sea level threatens cities. But climate change will make it so that we can’t raise enough food to feed a billion people if we don’t stop listening to climate deniers.

Rebecca Martin

[1] Rebecca Martin and Attorney Gordon Johnson co-authored the seminal brain injury advocacy page, http://waiting.com in 1997. Waiting.com was the first comprehensive brain injury website. It still can be found, in its orginal verson at the above link. Rebecca also did the web design work on the original http://tbilaw.com in 1996.


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