The Price of Smoke

The Price of Smoke title=
San Francisco under an orange haze (Photo: Preston Tasoff)
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By Harrison Tasoff, UC Santa Barbara

The morning of September 9th residents of the Bay Area woke up to eerily orange skies. The dusk-like conditions were an ominous reminder of the unprecedented wildfires ravaging California in 2020.

However, fires effect air quality even when the sky is relatively clear, and they create real financial costs for California residents. Health economist Daniel Cullen, who recently earned his doctorate from UC Santa Barbara, used air quality and public health data to estimate the healthcare costs associated with smoke exposure in the Golden State from 2012 through 2018.

Cullen found that each additional day of wildfire smoke led to roughly $188,000 in medical expenditures for respiratory and circulatory hospitalizations per county, as averaged across all the counties and years in his study. And the total cost in California over the entire period he studied came out to over $1.3 billion.

The study has yet to undergo peer review, but if the results hold up, it highlights a possibly overlooked effect of blazes on the people of California. “The main takeaway is that there are unaccounted for costs of wildfires,” the economist explained. “Exposure to wildfire smoke — not even directly next to the fire but far away — increases hospitalizations for respiratory and circulatory diagnoses, and this in turn leads to large costs associated with healthcare.”

Cullen first conceived of this research project during the 2017 Thomas Fire, he said, recalling the thick smoky conditions pervading the Santa Barbara area at the time. He was keenly interested in the intersection of human health and the environment, and wildfires fit nicely into that niche.

Cullen was curious how fires’ effects on air quality impacted public health, so he decided to focus on the issue in a chapter of his dissertation. He used hospitalizations as a metric for healthcare utilization, one common measure in economic research.

NASA's Terra satellite shows a smoke-covered California on Aug. 24, 2020. Photo Credit: NASA WORLDVIEW, EOSDIS

To uncover the effect of wildfire smoke on public health, he overlaid smoke plume data on county maps and looked at how many days of exposure to unhealthy air each county had. He then compared this to healthcare data from California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

To calculate his estimate, Cullen multiplied the increased number of respiratory and circulatory cases by the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate for what an average case costs, and adjusted for inflation. He compared each county to itself in the same month over the course of different years. This allowed him to control for many confounding factors that could have crept in had he compared dissimilar counties. This technique also accounts for conditions that affect all counties equally, like a really bad flu season.

The scope of the study was limited by the available data, Cullen noted. The analysis takes into account only immediate medical treatment. It doesn’t factor in things like long-term healthcare, lost years, chronic conditions and so forth. It also doesn’t consider the economic costs that result from the loss in productivity.

Cullen saw increased hospitalizations for respiratory and circulatory conditions even one to two months after unhealthy conditions dissipated. This persistence, he explained, suggests that smoke exposure isn’t merely accelerating illnesses that would have happened anyway, albeit a bit later. “It’s not just changing the timing,” he said, “it’s actually increasing the number of cases.”

Indeed, the data suggest that each additional day of smoke exposure resulted in 11 more respiratory and 3 more circulatory hospitalizations per day per county, averaged across all counties and the entire time period. The average annual cost of smoke exposure was just shy of $200 million statewide.

While $200 million per year may not be large for an economy like California’s, “this number is going up every year as more fires are getting bigger and hotter and the smoke plumes are lasting for longer periods,” Cullen said.

The study estimates that smoke-related hospitalizations cost around $88 million in 2012. By 2018, cases racked up nearly $348 million.

This year is likely to be the worst so far, he said, while admitting it will be hard to extrapolate from his findings given how extraordinary the 2020 season has been. “When a big county like San Francisco is covered in smoke for two months, it’s hard to say what’s going to be the effect.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also thrown a wrench into his methodology, as respiratory admissions have likely skyrocketed. “It’s such an outlier year,” Cullen said. “I don’t think anyone can really compare this year to other years.”

Pandemic aside, the cost of smoke exposure is on track to continue rising. The climate crisis is increasing the size, frequency and intensity of wildfires. “These healthcare costs need to be accounted for when we’re thinking about the costs of climate change,” Cullen said.

He also pointed out that, while this study applies only to California, the costs of the state’s fires reach far beyond. “We have to keep in mind that it’s the entire American West that is facing this issue,” he said. While driving from Santa Barbara to Colorado, where he currently lives, Cullen saw smoke from the California fires all throughout Utah.

“Healthcare costs from California’s fires carry across state lines,” he said. Thanks to the prevailing winds, the pollution has even reached cities on the East Coast. “These fires are affecting the health of people throughout the country.”

Cullen recently took a position at HealthCore, a health research company owned by Anthem. Hehopes to build upon this study in the coming years by looking at costs associated with long-term care and chronic conditions related to smoke exposure.

As for now, he offered a bit of pragmatic advice: “You don’t have to see smoke plumes for them to be affecting your health.”

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SBTownie Nov 30, 2020 01:57 PM
The Price of Smoke

While I recognize the dangers of particulate matter in wood smoke, I'm more bothered by the toxic and unknown laundry fumes that every house in town is venting out (and thus into my home) nearly 24/7. Can't even smell the earth or nature anymore (and miss it when the only smell was woodsmoke) because I'm being knocked out by the scent of Gain, Tide, and more all the time. Don't even get me started on people who reek of Tide and how you can smell them from 20 feet away. It's not healthy and if people want to get up in arms about wood smoke, why don't they start by analyzing their own household cleaners and detergents to start.

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 03:37 PM
The Price of Smoke

Seems like a whatabout argument, which are designed to lead to inaction on any issue. There are too many problems to address all of them at the same time, so each person has to pick the ones that seem most important to them. You are welcome to start a hypoallergenic detergent movement and I fully support you in that.

Voice of Reason Nov 30, 2020 11:51 AM
The Price of Smoke

A lot of the stink is from a naturally occurring oil-shale fire in our coastal cliffs near Hendry's. Smells like a burnt plastic or a fried clutch, it's a unique petroleum smell can be picked up from really far away depending on the winds.

SBTownie Nov 30, 2020 01:54 PM
The Price of Smoke

We were driving in Hope Ranch and Campanil this past weekend and I was overwhelmed suddenly with a burning smell I thought was our car catching on fire. My partner kept insisting it was tarmac being laid, but we could see absolutely no active road work anywhere and we were driving around for a long time. Is that what we were smelling? That's crazy. Thank you for the info!

doulie Nov 30, 2020 01:27 PM
The Price of Smoke

Once you take a close look at the satellite photo with this article you will clearly see all that smoke is from Hendry's. There's a wind trough created by the ocean winds as they cruise over Cliff Drive, through Las Positas. These winds increase as they travel over the old dump (aka Eilings Park), up and then down Valerio Street that acts as a funnel. From the base of Valerio it reeks and creates havoc all over the west side. Best you get back to court and request the order be dismissed:)

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 01:11 PM
The Price of Smoke

So my neighbor who used to barbeque every night on the Westside and then lit his tiki torches and firepit many nights, that smoke was really from Hendry's? Now I'm sorry that I took him to court and got a restraining order against him for burning trash in his BBQ.

Andrea Smith Nov 30, 2020 11:43 AM
The Price of Smoke

I love the smell of fireplaces in the fall/winter. Very cozy. To all of you out there using your fireplaces, not everyone is a Karen. Some of us really love the smell and feel it evokes. From time immemorial humans have burned wood, for heat, cooking, you name it. The human race has survived.

PitMix Dec 01, 2020 07:24 AM
The Price of Smoke

Andrea, very easy to find data that asthma rates have increased over the years, even in the relatively recent past. But that is the price of arguing on social media with people that don't care about facts. "The number of people with asthma continues to grow. One in 12 people (about 25 million, or 8% of the population) had asthma in 2009, compared with 1 in 14 (about 20 million, or 7%) in 2001. More than half (53%) of people with asthma had an asthma attack in 2008."

Minibeast Nov 30, 2020 02:42 PM
The Price of Smoke

ANDREA SMITH. Did you miss this? Here it is again: -----
You sure can tell others to keep their wood smoke off your property. Invasion of wood smoke constitutes "toxic trespass." Just like you can tell your neighbors to keep their pets off your lawn, keep their water off your property and stop their pesticides drifting onto your land. "For centuries" world population was negligible. "For centuries" we weren't living stacked up, ass to elbow. Unfortunately, your lack of knowledge re: wood smoke is not uncommon. Why not educate yourself on the subject? Here's a good start: That smell of wood smoke you love so much = benzene = category one carcinogen. Please watch that short clip about wood smoke and how it affects one's brain. It could be you've already been over-exposed.

Andrea Smith Nov 30, 2020 02:21 PM
The Price of Smoke

PITMIX asthma has also been around for centuries. Guess what - we all have to live together and always have. You don't get to tell others what they can and cannot do and demand they conform to your issues either, to make the world what YOU want it to be. What did the Pope say about people like YOU. It's not like the air is filled with smoke. People have always burned fireplaces and such, probably even more so than now with the advent of gas fireplaces, and people with asthma have walked around too.

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 01:09 PM
The Price of Smoke

Spoken like a person who doesn't have asthma, doesn't know anyone with asthma, and doesn't care about anyone else with breathing problems. What did the Pope say about people like you?

taz Nov 29, 2020 03:20 PM
The Price of Smoke

Thank you Harrison Tasoff for your interesting write-up explaining this careful and informative work of Daniel Cullen. We appreciate your sharing it with those of us in our SB county area. Too bad Dr. Cullen will still be feeling the effects of our smoke as it drifts to his new home in Colorado. :( Perhaps his research will continue to help all of us as we get some kind of handle on the fires (and reduction of) in future. With regards...

LCP112233 Nov 29, 2020 11:56 AM
The Price of Smoke

If we make it through the year without dying of Covid, we will die of smoke inhalation.

yacht rocked Nov 29, 2020 07:50 AM
The Price of Smoke

I have noticed that when the wind is on-shore (usually starting late mornings to late afternoons), you can actually see that the pollution from campfires at Carpinteria State Beach Park raise the particulate level over Carp's adjacent Concha Loma neighborhood, as measured by a PurpleAir detector located in the neighborhood. The particulate levels are often higher there than they are at several detectors located near Highway 101 in Carp. (At the time of this posting the wind is still slightly offshore so campfire smoke is blowing out to sea.) Keep an eye here:

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 01:07 PM
The Price of Smoke

How about Reno, in their little basin, when everyone burns wood in the winter, they have to restrict it because the air quality gets so bad?

Minibeast Nov 28, 2020 09:42 PM
The Price of Smoke

And for all you die-hard wood burners out there:

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 10:09 AM
The Price of Smoke

El, I guess that makes sense, wood would take too long to ramp up and cool down. Should I say wood-burning locomotive then?

El Barbareno Nov 30, 2020 09:47 AM
The Price of Smoke

Actually Stanley Steamers were fueled by fossil fuels - gasoline and kerosene. :)

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 07:27 AM
The Price of Smoke

Jence, I use fossil fuel but gave up my wood-burning Stanley Steamer some years ago. What's your point- that if you live in the US you have to accept wood-burning as a given?

doulie Nov 29, 2020 09:15 AM
The Price of Smoke

:) Mandate only smoke proof wood/trees can be used for fires. Call the idiot in Sacramento, he'll take care of this.

Jence Nov 29, 2020 05:03 AM
The Price of Smoke

Hmm,,, I don’t suppose the fireplace folks have and drive or ride in cars and/or use any fossil fuel-burring transportation...
Just saying >>>

ChemicalSuperFreak Nov 29, 2020 12:36 AM
The Price of Smoke

OMG, how did the human race survive...OMG...Nature is dying...OMG....We are all dying...OMG...

Minibeast Nov 28, 2020 09:38 PM
The Price of Smoke

BENE: No kidding. There's a whole lot of willful ignorance when it comes to wood smoke and the carcinogenic contaminants contained therein. As I type this, my neighbors 200 yards away are burning, burning, burning. There's not even a breeze, but their toxic smoke is filling up our house (doors and windows shut tight). Our throats itch, our eyes burn with the smoke. Our air purifiers are cranked up to their highest speed. Tomorrow and for days after, we will be smelling the smoke in our furniture, carpet, drapes. Sure, people have the legal right to burn wood, but where's our right to breathe clean air?

Bene Nov 28, 2020 05:01 PM
The Price of Smoke

So if one believes this very convincing data that wildfire smoke equals mortality and morbidity, why are neighborhood fireplace burners allowed to choke entire neighborhoods in foul smelling smoke year round in our temperate Santa Barbara? Depending on what crap is being burned, stinks worse than the wildfires by far and chokes the air for days.

Jence Nov 30, 2020 12:08 PM
The Price of Smoke

Pit- I should have said ‘anti-fireplace’; sorry. I personally like the smell of a fireplace and a good oak bbq. Don’t do either one much anymore so when I smell it I don’t mind it. But that’s just me.

PitMix Nov 30, 2020 07:25 AM
The Price of Smoke

It's the right of every red=blooded USAian to burn wood in whatever form they can think of. Fireplaces, chimineas, firepits, fire everthing! If you think getting people to wear masks was hard, just try to take away their right to burn wood. Plus any restrictions would be very hard to enforce.

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