Smoke from wildfires costs American workers more than $100 billion a year in wages

With the smoke of burning canadian forests enveloping much of the northeastern United States, public schools in New York and Washington, D.C., outdoor activities canceledsome companies told employees to work from home, and professional baseball teams scrapped games.

Such disruptions to ordinary city life illustrate the heavy economic toll of climate change, which experts say is making wildfires more intense and contributing to air pollution.

“It’s gray and the sun looked orange in the sky this morning, like Star Wars or something,” Paul Billings, national vice president of public policy at the American Lung Association, told CBS. MoneyWatch from Washington, DC.

“It’s really early in the season, we’re still in the spring, and we’re seeing these wildfires in Canada and the United States that are impacting air quality in the eastern United States. In New England, across the mid-Atlantic and in Minnesota, we are seeing high levels of particulates or soot,” he added.

These tiny particles are especially dangerous for people with heart disease, asthma, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but they carry risks for everyone, including the risk of asthma attack, heart attack, stroke or premature death.

“Some people need to take more of their medication — others end up in the emergency room,” Billings said.

Because the type of particles present in smoke are so small, they pass through the body’s natural defenses, such as the mucous membranes of the nose and throat as well as the body’s cough mechanism.

“They get deep into the lungs and where you have oxygen exchange systems,” Billings said. “These particles enter your bloodstream and create a wide range of health problems, including strokes, heart attacks, and different types of cancer.”

Canadian wildfire smoke triggers air quality advisories for millions


Wildfires aren’t the only source of particulate matter – diesel trucks and coal-fired power plants have historically contributed the lion’s share of air pollution. But wildfires are a growing factor. The increased frequency of wildfires in a hotter, drier climate has reversed some of the air quality improvements since the Clean Air Act of 1970, the American Lung Association noted in an April report.

“Staggering” costs

The Earth’s global warming is contributing to the problem, with temperatures in Canada being unusually high this year. Lytton, B.C. — usually a temperate city — hit a record high of 121 degrees last week, tying California’s Death Valley. Hot, dry weather makes it more likely that a forest will catch fire and burn longer. Already, Canada forest fire season is on track to be the most destructive in the country’s history.

Globally, air pollution kills more than 3 million people a year, according to the World Health Association. In dollar terms, the costs are enormous and translate into increased hospitalizations, missed work and school days, and reduced worker productivity.

“The costs are staggering,” Billings said.

Air pollution adds $2,500 a year to the medical bills of a typical American, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. In the United States, smoke, factory output and car exhaust cost the economy $800 billion a year, or about 3% of the country’s total economic output, according to the NRDC.

It is perhaps unsurprising that high levels of air pollution also reduce incomes by making work harder and more unpleasant, which is a major drag on the economy. Outdoor workers, such as delivery people, landscapers, and teachers are the most affected, but office workers are not necessarily safe. Even indoor air pollution reaches three or four times safe levels during a wildfire, studies show.

$125 billion in lost wages

Stanford researchers who mapped wildfire plumes across the United States found that a single day of smoke exposure reduced a person’s quarterly income by 0.1%, according to a recent paper. work published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Across the United States, workers lost $125 billion a year to wildfire smoke, the newspaper said, or about 2% of all labor income.

Besides smoke, warmer air also increases the production of ozone, a major component of smog and a lung irritant. “Some researchers have compared it to sunburn on your lungs — your cells get irritated and cry,” Billings said.

Air quality has reached harmful levels in the eastern United States due to wildfires in Canada
Workers in Washington, DC on June 7, 2023 as air quality has fallen to dangerous levels due to hundreds of wildfires across Canada.

Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As with other types of pollution, the effects of ozone, smog and smoke are not evenly distributed, with lower income people and people of color being more likely to be exposed, according to the ALA.

Companies and governments can take certain measures, such as improving indoor filtration, not forcing workers outside, and alerting by issuing public service air quality alerts. But reducing the cost of long-term air pollution means widespread electrification, Billings said. This would reduce emissions from transport and factories.

“I think too often people see them as freak weather events,” he said. “It’s not a chance fire. It’s early June. There have always been fires, but the main driver that creates these hot and dry conditions that create opportunities for these fires is climate change. »

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