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Wildfires Are Fueling a Toxic Combo of Air Pollutants

Updated: Feb 19, 2022


The 2020 fire season subjected half the western U.S. population to a stew of particulate matter and ozone.

By Chelsea Harvey, E&E News on January 6, 2022

Smoke fills the air over homes in Oakland, California, in September 2020. Credit: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

Unseen dangers accompanied deadly flames in the record-breaking wildfire season that raged across the U.S. West in 2020.

In addition to the millions of acres burned by the blazes, the thousands of structures they destroyed and the dozens of people they killed, the 2020 fires brought some of the worst air quality conditions ever observed across the region.

A dangerous combination of both fine particulate matter and toxic surface-level ozone—both forms of air pollution that can be produced or worsened by wildfires—built up in the air and spread across the Western states.

Studies suggest that the population exposure to these combined pollutants was the highest observed since scientists started keeping tabs on them 20 years ago.


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