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Wildfires, heatwave drive air pollution in Europe

Our planet is overheating. In Europe this summer, climate change trends created life-threatening heatwaves and widespread wildfires. Those conditions made Paris the third most polluted major city in the world on July 19, 2022.

France high Air Quality listing

Pictured: Paris, France air quality was dangerously unhealthy on the evening of July 19, 2022. Source: IQAir AirVisual.

Extreme heat and wildfire smoke caused PM2.5 concentration in Paris to rise to four times the WHO daily air quality guideline value.

In Paris, the average PM2.5 (particulate matter measuring under 2.5 microns in diameter) concentration of 60 μg/m3 was measured on Tuesday. Extreme heat and wildfire smoke caused PM2.5 concentration in Paris to rise to four times the WHO daily air quality guideline value.

City air quality in Paris, France 4x the WHO daily air quality guideline

Pictured: City air quality in Paris, France on July 19 was four times the WHO daily air quality guideline value. Source: IQAir AirVisual.

Air quality map of Paris displays most air quality stations with unhealthy air quality.

Pictured: Air quality map of Paris displays most air quality stations with unhealthy air quality. Source: IQAir AirVisual.

Extreme heat impacts air quality

Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Brussels were broiling on Tuesday, where temperatures were over 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than historical averages for the date than in previous years (1). A village in Lincolnshire, England recorded a temperature of 104.5 degrees for the first time on record (2).

Over 1,700 people have suffered heat-related deaths in Spain and Portugal.

The heatwave alone has carried an alarming death toll. Over 1,700 people have suffered heat-related deaths in Spain and Portugal. Portugal sustained 1,063 deaths between July 7 and 18 from the heatwave. In Spain, 678 people died between July 10 and July 17 (3).

The heatwave set the stage for fire, smoke, and smoke’s deadly air pollution to impact millions of lives. But pollutants reacting with sunshine can also result in air pollution. When temperatures rise, ground-level ozone increases. Nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by vehicles and industry react with sunlight to create ozone, also known as smog.

Apart from impacting visibility, smog affects the heart and lungs with an array of symptoms ranging from difficulty breathing to lung damage and increased asthma attacks.

As temperatures rise, wildfires rage

In Europe, the extreme heatwave fueled severe wildfires in multiple countries and endangered health across the continent.

Through human-induced climate change, Northern Hemisphere temperatures are rising and drying out ground cover, creating tinderbox conditions that feed into more extreme wildfires like those burning in Europe.

The fires in southwestern France are the region’s largest conflagration in over 30 years.

In southwestern France, wildfires surrounding Bordeaux burned about 80 square miles of forest and forced the evacuation of 37,000 residents in seaside resorts (4). The fires are the region’s largest conflagration in over 30 years.

In late July, wildfires blazed and caused evacuations across Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and Greece.

In Spain, wildfires charred 173,000 acres in 2022 and doubled the average acreage burned by wildfires for the past decade (5). As of Tuesday, firefighters were battling over 30 wildfires across the country.

Wildfire smoke and heat drives poor air quality

Wildfires send drifting plumes of noxious smoke hundreds or even thousands of miles from its source. The end result – very poor air quality.

Wildfire smoke’s primary pollutant is PM2.5. This tiny pollutant causes heart and respiratory illness, as well as impacting every organ in the body.

Because it’s so dangerous, the World Health Organization guideline for average daily PM2.5 emission levels is 15 μg/m3 or lower.

Poor air quality far above the WHO guideline was measured in London and Paris on Tuesday evening.

Heat and wildfire smoke steeply degraded air quality in much of Western Europe on July 19.

Pictured: Heat and wildfire smoke steeply degraded air quality in much of Western Europe on July 19. Source: IQAir AirVisual.

The heatwave and fires burning in London led to poor air quality. Air quality monitoring stations showed air quality in the “moderate” range. And “moderate” can be misleading – no amount of air pollution is considered safe, including the entire range of average PM2.5 concentration measurements in the moderate range (12.1 to 35.4 μg/m3).

London’s air quality map displays air quality is shown as moderate throughout most of the city. Source: IQAir AirVisual.

Pictured: London’s air quality map displays air quality shown as moderate throughout most of the city. Source: IQAir AirVisual.

Wildfire smoke is toxic and has both an immediate and long-term impact on human health. We may first experience wildfire smoke through eye irritation, a scratchy throat, shortness of breath, and a headache. Asthma sufferers and people with allergies can struggle with severe symptoms through airway inflammation. Studies have found that in places more prone to wildfire smoke exposure, there are increases in respiratory illness hospitalizations (6).

Carbon dioxide is also emitted with wildfire smoke. A primary greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide contributes to climate change by helping trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere – continuing a feedback loop that results in higher temperatures and more fires.

The takeaway

The vicious feedback loop connecting warming temperatures, increased heat, wildfire smoke, and air pollution will only grow stronger so long as the world allows uncontrolled warming.

“The inextricable link between air pollution and global climate change is a stark reminder that the risks posed by air pollution are far more widespread than the adverse health effects experienced in global regions with chronically poor quality air,” noted Dr. Christi Chester Schroeder, Air Quality Science Manager at IQAir.

“Air pollution anywhere increases risk for adverse consequences everywhere.”

The best solution is to cut greenhouse gases and air pollution sources off at their source by enforcing reduced industrial and vehicle emissions. By adopting policies that adhere to the WHO guideline, nations can ensure healthier air quality for all citizens and reduce emissions that feed into the cycle of human-induced climate change.

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