Study: Calif. wildfires increased ozone pollution

Study: Calif. wildfires increased ozone pollution

9 October 2008

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USA — An outbreak of wildfires in California last year worsened smog pollution in rural areas and caused levels to spike above federal air quality standards, a study released Thursday found.

California witnessed an intense wildfire season in 2007 with drought conditions and unusually powerful Santa Ana winds fanning flames. More than 9,000 fires blackened over a million acres around the state and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.

Scientists at theNational Center for Atmospheric Research focused on blazes that broke out last September and October.

Using computer models and data from 55 rural ground monitoring stations, they found that drifting smoke from wildfires sent ozone pollution to unhealthy levels in 66 instances, about triple the usual number.

The calculations were based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s old standard for ozone at 80 parts per billion over an eight-hour period. The EPA earlier this year tightened the amount of ozone that will be allowed in the air to 75 parts per billion.

Under the stricter smog limit, scientists estimated that violations would double from the previous standard.

Lead scientist Gabriele Pfister said rural regions can be affected even if they are far from the fire and smoke. Unhealthy air lingered in parts of Kern, Tulare, El Dorado and Mariposa counties.

“It can be a health problem even if you don’t see anything,” she said.

Ozone, which needs sunlight to form, is a yellow haze of pollutants that hangs in the air. Ozone exposure can raise the risk of respiratory illnesses, especially among the elderly and children.

During last year’s fires, air regulators sent out daily alerts about unhealthy air and urged people with breathing problems to stay indoors. The dirty air forced schools to cancel classes and shut down outdoor concerts. Hospitals reported seeing a jump in people being treated for breathing problems.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

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