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Health, Science and Environment

Long Wildfire Seasons Also Mean Extended Periods Of Dangerous Air Quality

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Millions of Americans are being exposed to a tremendous rise in wildfire smoke. Rural communities in Northern California are some of the worst-hit in the country. That's according to a new investigation from our California Newsroom Collaboration. From member station KQED, here's Farida Jhabvala Romero.

FARIDA JHABVALA ROMERO, BYLINE: At Tim Pedrozo's (ph) farm, two dozen cows walk on acres of pasture and munch happily on grass. But last year, his farm, a hundred miles north of Sacramento, was inundated with smoke. Pedrozo says that led to a big outbreak of painful pink-eye infections. One cow lost her eye.

TIM PEDROZO: All of those, the group of heifers - every single one of them had it.

ROMERO: Scientists say that because smoke irritates the eyes, it can make animals or people more susceptible to infections like pink eye. Pedrozo also worries about what the smoke is doing to his body. He points out that wildfires have burned homes and businesses nearby.

PEDROZO: If you smell smoke, it's probably not so good. But when you smell rubber and plastic (laughter), real strong chemicals, i just think that's what, you know, we really, really need to avoid.

ROMERO: In recent years, Glenn County, where Pedrozo's was farm is located, suffered 85 days of smoke on average per year. That's up from 56 days a decade ago. This area is one of the smokiest places in the country. That's according to an analysis of federal satellite images. The California Newsroom partnered with Stanford University's Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab. Allison Saldana (ph) is the journalist who crunched the numbers.

ALLISON SALDANA: Places far across the country are also now witnessing an increase in the number of smog days that they are exposed to.

ROMERO: Places like Columbus, Ohio, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

SALDANA: Boston was recording two weeks of smog, you know, less than a decade ago, and now we're looking at close to a month.

ROMERO: So yes, where are we in the hospital?

JARED GARRISON: So that was the cafeteria...

ROMERO: In a small hospital in Willows near Pedrozo's farm, Dr. Jared Garrison shows me around.

GARRISON: I'm taking you down to where the clinic is.

ROMERO: He's the county health officer and says the smoke is especially dangerous for people who have lung and heart conditions.

GARRISON: It is associated with sudden cardiac death, so people just kind of dying all of a sudden. There's data that shows this linked with cancer.

ROMERO: Garrison says that poor air quality has hastened the death of some of his patients with lung disease. Here in California, the smoke is sending more people to the hospital. Our investigation found 30,000 more hospitalizations for lung and heart conditions in 2018 than just two years before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everybody was on the road, coming home...

ROMERO: On hazy days, Vietnam veteran Larry George is stuck inside his two-bedroom house, watching TV.

LARRY GEORGE: You get feeling like you're not allowed to go out. You know, you don't have the freedom you had.

ROMERO: George has a chronic lung problem. Even walking a few steps to his pickup truck is difficult.

GEORGE: You know, it's like you've been running. That's kind of the way you get to feeling. You get to where (panting) - like that.

ROMERO: So he's thinking of moving to Illinois to escape the bad air quality. He'd live with his stepdaughter. The mega fires causing this smoke are becoming more frequent due to the warming climate. And if they continue, more Americans might also see their lives changed because of the dangerous air. For NPR news, I'm Farida Jhabvala Romero in Willows, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.