Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on December 7, 2021.

Wildfire’s Widening Toll

At least 33,000 people around the world die each year from pollution caused by wildfires, a new study finds


The toll wildfires take is often measured in direct deaths, property damage, and acres of land burned. New research suggests the overall impact of wildfires stretches far beyond those metrics.

A study published in The Lancet Planetary Health in September estimates that at least 33,000 people a year die from pollution caused by wildfire smoke, with a disproportionate number of those deaths occurring in Central and South America. The groups most at risk, according to the research, include children up to 9 years old and people over 80 years old.

“We found that exposure to wildfire-related [fine particulate matter] was significantly associated with increased all-cause, cardiovascular, and respiratory mortality at a global level, but the associations varied across countries and regions,” the authors write in the study. “Policymakers and public health professionals should raise awareness of wildfire pollution to prompt public responses and take actions to avoid exposure.”

Globally, 33,000 deaths a year translates to about 0.6 percent of all deaths, according to the study. But in some countries, the percentage of overall deaths related to wildfire pollution is much higher. In Guatemala, where the percentage is highest, it’s just over 3 percent. The second-highest percentage is in Thailand, at 2.3 percent, while the next three highest are all in Central and South America—Paraguay (2.1 percent), Mexico (1.7 percent), and Peru (1.6 percent)

The study builds on past research into the effects of wildfire smoke on human health. A study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine in 2020 found that children living in wildfire-prone areas in Brazil are 36 percent more likely to be admitted to the hospital with respiratory problems. A 2017 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that nearly 1,500 deaths in Europe can be attributed to wildfire pollution every year. But the authors of the new study, which used 16 years of data from 749 cities in 43 countries, say it’s the most comprehensive effort so far to examine the problem.

Still, the researchers believe it significantly underestimates the global number of deaths related to wildfire pollution, according to an article in New Scientist. Data was not collected, for example, from Indonesia or Malaysia—countries that have experienced some of the world’s most severe wildfires in recent years. The study also only focused on one of several potentially harmful air pollutants known to be unleashed by wildfires.

The new research was published a month after the United Nations issued a major report concluding that a hotter planet is no longer an avoidable aspect of the future. That warming trend, scientists believe, is likely to also mean a future with more frequent and more severe wildfires.

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Follow him on Twitter @angelo_verzoni. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES