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Wildfire Smoke Contributes To Air Quality Plummeting In The West

Wildfire smoke crosses the U.S. on jetstream
Wildfire smoke crosses the U.S. on jetstream

For much of the last decade, air pollution was decreasing. But it’s now on the rise, particularly in the West.

That’s according to a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. It found that between 2016 and 2018, the levels of fine particulate matter increased 11.5% in the West. California's been impacted the most.

Karen Clay, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and the study’s lead author, says enforcement of environmental regulations plays a key role in the amount of pollution in the air.

“From 2009 to 2016, air was improving,” Clay said. “And so perhaps it’s reasonable that the enforcement actions would also be trending down. The thing that’s concerning now is that they’re continuing to trend down, even as air quality gets worse.”

Clay says wildfires and an increase in economic activity are also factors. They add up to a serious public health issue. The researchers found that the increase in air pollution was associated with 9,700 premature deaths in 2018 alone.

“It is actually meaningfully shortening people’s lives, and of course if it’s younger people, then it’s particularly worrisome,” Clay said.

The authors say the deaths highlight the need for policy solutions to tackle air pollution.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

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