Wildfires — uncontrolled and unpredictable fires — are increasing in prevalence in the U.S. and around the world, posing significant environmental and public health threats. The impact of wildfire smoke is a big problem that is only getting bigger. From 2000 to 2021, wildfires burned nearly 7 million acres per year (larger than Massachusetts), more than double the annual acreage destroyed by wildfires during the 1990s, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Through the first eight months of 2022, nearly 48,000 wildfires have already consumed more than 6 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
And according to a recent United Nations report, the global risks of extreme, uncontrollable wildfires are projected to increase 14% by 2030 and 50% by the end of the century.
Wildfires were once considered natural disasters confined to a few western states for three or four months out of the year. However, their impacts, including on human health, are far more geographically widespread. In fact, although the largest wildfires often occur in the West, research shows that the majority of wildfire smoke–attributable mortalities (74%) and asthma-related morbidities (75%) do not occur in western states.
The scale and intensity of wildfires have increased exponentially, driven in part by historic drought conditions and climate change. We’re all affected: Wildfires raging in California have health effects for those on the East Coast, including people living in large, densely populated urban areas such as New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Charlotte and Atlanta.
These grim facts and realities reinforce the importance of implementing multilayered mitigation strategies to reduce exposure and minimize health impacts.
WILDFIRE SMOKE AND PARTICULATE MATTER
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particulate matter (PM) produced when wood and other organic materials burn. PM is one of the six most prevalent and harmful air pollutants.
The PM from wildfire smoke is very small, typically around 0.4 microns (µm) in diameter, so the particles are more likely to deeply penetrate a person’s respiratory system. This, in turn, can cause both immediate and long-term health effects, especially for older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions.
According to public health and environmental science experts, wildfire smoke causes an estimated 339,000 premature deaths a year globally. The tiny particles found in smoke can be up to 10 times more harmful to human health than other pollutants, including soot from tailpipes and factories.
WILDFIRE SMOKE AND INDOOR AIR QUALITY
Outdoor air pollution has a significant impact on indoor air quality (IAQ), as ambient air inevitably enters buildings through doors and windows and is also pulled into indoor spaces by HVAC systems.
HVAC systems and their mechanical filters represent the first line of defense to help clean indoor air. While critical, most filters have an inherent weak spot in capturing certain airborne particles, including microscopic and submicroscopic PM from wildfire smoke. This gap in efficiency is known as the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) curve.
HOW IONIZATION HELPS HVAC SYSTEMS TACKLE WILDFIRE SMOKE
Ionization is a long-established air-cleaning process that helps reduce indoor airborne particles — including PM in wildfire smoke — through a process called “agglomeration.”
When positive and negative ions are introduced into a space via the existing HVAC system, they actively seek out and form bonds with particles in the air, forming larger clusters that are more easily captured by filters. Fewer airborne particles mean cleaner indoor air.
*Third-party testing on the proprietary GPS needlepoint bipolar ionization (NPBI™) technology shows that ionization improves filter performance and, subsequently, IAQ.
As wildfires continue to increase both in prevalence and intensity, with profound impacts on human health, it is critical that we raise our collective awareness about the dangers of wildfire smoke. But perhaps even more important, given the complexity of IAQ, multilayered solutions are required to mitigate exposure and impacts.
*Third-party testing was jointly executed, and paid for, by GPS.