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Tens of thousands of premature deaths linked to human-ignited fires

A new study led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has found that over 80 percent of premature deaths caused by exposure to small smoke particles in the United States result from human-ignited fires. According to the experts, human-ignited fires account for more than 67 percent of tiny smoke particles called PM2.5 which are known to degrade air quality and cause a variety of diseases and premature deaths.

Currently, the level of fire activity in the U.S. is increasing, with estimates suggesting that smoke from human-ignited fires accounted for 20,000 premature deaths in 2018 alone, or 270 percent more than there were in 2003, a year with a lower frequency of fire events.

“Fires not only threaten human lives, infrastructure, and ecosystems, but they are also a major cause for concern in terms of air quality,” explained study lead author Therese Carter, an expert in Atmospheric Chemistry at MIT. “High levels of smoke exposure can negatively impact human health resulting in conditions such as respiratory infections, lung cancer, heart disease, and even premature births. Our results show that a large and significant portion of harmful smoke particles result directly from human-lit fires.”

By using the Global Fire Emissions Database, the scientists quantified agricultural fire emissions and classified them into two categories: human versus natural ignition. Then, with the help of a chemical transport model, they simulated the concentrations of smoke particles across the U.S. The analysis revealed that a significant amount of PM2.5 in the country results from human-ignited fires and thus has the potential to be managed.

In order to mitigate the devastating health effects of pollution from small smoke particles, the authors recommend management plans to restrict the ignition of agricultural fires to periods when weather conditions would minimize health impacts.

“Now we know that humans can play a pivotal role in reducing PM2.5 concentrations, we should be putting policies, regulations, and management plans in place to reduce human-ignited fires. Efforts to minimize human-ignited fires should be focused on certain regions and ignition types in order to be more successful. Identifying and acknowledging the sources of these particles is the first step in a cleaner, healthier future,” Carter concluded.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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