PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The Bay Area's record-breaking streak of poor air quality could cost thousands of lives, according to a new calculation by Stanford researchers.
Marshall Burke, an associate professor of earth system science at the university, looked at extensive research on the effects of wildfire pollutants in the air in connection to increase deaths in the elderly population. Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, he predicts at least 1,200 additional deaths and 4,800 ER visits in California due to the wildfire smoke.
"So, we're not measuring fatality rates in real-time, we're saying we know how much worse the air quality got, we know based on 20 years of Medicare data if you change the air quality that much, how many more deaths do you get, and so it's a combination of those two numbers," said Burke.
You'd never see it, of course, just looking at hazy skies -- but scientists are most worried about what hangs in that air, a kind of pollution that's especially deadly, PM 2.5 or particulate matter, less than 2.5 microns in size.
Four Stanford researchers based their findings on how an increase in PM 2.5 would affect the 6 million in California who are age 65 and over. That's why they say 1,200 deaths is actually on the low side of their estimate, including other vulnerable groups of the population could mean up to 3,000 additional deaths.
"My hope is that we are attentive to all the bad things that happen when we get these wildfire smokes events. We get the people who are directly in harm's way and we get the very large people who are indirectly in harm's way. These events have much larger costs than we typically realize," said Burke.
ER Doctor Ronn Berrol at Sutter's Alta Bates Summit Medical Center says he's not surprised by the Stanford calculation, considering what he saw in his own hospital during last month's persistent poor air quality.
"As the poor smoke and air quality stayed with us in our environment, then we started to see the numbers rise of people with the coughs, shortness of breath, exacerbation of their chronic lung conditions," he said.
Burke hopes his calculations will drive home the point to take poor air quality seriously, and to help those who are most vulnerable.
"We need to think about reducing our exposure to wildfire smoke, as best we can. That's staying inside, that's buying air filters, if you can afford them. That's limiting exercise when it's very bad."
For his patients, Dr. Berroll worries about those who are most vulnerable to smoke exposure -- the homeless population, newborns, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses. He hopes that more awareness about how wildfire smoke affects our health can lead to better treatments.
"The morbidity, the effects on those people, we are not going to know the final impact on our society for quite some time," he said.
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