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Research Shows Health Impacts and Economic Costs of Wildland Fires

Published September 28, 2017

Researchers at EPA and colleagues at NC State University, the University of Sydney and the University of Tasmania are advancing the science of understanding the public health burden associated with wildland fires. In a recently published study,Exit the team estimated the number of premature deaths and illnesses caused by pollution related to wildland fires in the United States, and the economic value of that health burden over a 5-year period. The team applied a unique set of air quality modeling simulations in combination with well-established techniques for assessing air pollution risk. The team found that wildland fires occurring between 2008 and 2012 posed a significant burden to public health.

This is the first study of its kind to characterize fine particle pollution (PM2.5) from wildland fires—the pollutant of most concern for health risk from fires --over such a long period of time. Other studies have focused on single fire events or covered shorter periods of time.  The team hopes that the findings will support further research into the health burdens and costs from wildland fires.

The article, published in Science of the Total Environment, estimated between 5,200 and 8,500 hospital admissions for respiratory problems per year and 1,500-2,500 hospital admissions for cardiovascular problems per year. Total deaths per year were estimated between 1,500 and 2,500 as well, with 2008 having the highest rate because of wildland fire-related PM2.5.

The wildland fires for these five years had an economic impact as well. The study estimated the cost of short-term exposures that led to premature deaths or hospital admissions at $63 billion in 2016 dollars and long-term exposures at $450 billion in 2016 dollars.

While the entire U.S. experienced increased levels of wildland fire PM2.5 for the period (from wildfires or prescribed fires), a subset of states experienced an especially large impact—including Louisiana, California, Idaho and Georgia. 

The study lays the groundwork for future investigations into the health and economic costs of wildland fires and provides information that state and local health officials can consider now as they develop communications about wildland fires and public health.