Experts on Camera

Dr. Joseph L. Wilkins: Wildfire smoke and outdoor air quality

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The smoke from this summer’s Canadian wildfires has led to bad air quality in the Midwest and Northeast—a new phenomenon in those parts of the country but an all too familiar scourge for people living in the West.

On Wednesday, August 9, 2023, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Joseph L. Wilkins, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Howard University. He discussed topics including: how smoke from wildfires travels through the atmosphere and how scientists project where it will end up; how smoke from wildfires and particles from other sources contribute to air pollution; how air quality affects human health and ways to minimize negative impacts; and the environmental justice implications of forest management decisions.

Declared interests:

Dr. Wilkins’ research is funded by the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and NASA, and he partners with each institution to build workforce ready underserved minorities. He conducts research experiments and summer internship programs funded by NASA Student Airborne Research Program and the Energy and Climate Resilience for the DOE. He reports serving as an executive member of the International Association of Wildland Fire and many other groups leading the global push for air quality and health e.g., member of the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, Fire Science Exchange Network, and the American Geophysical Union. Additionally, he volunteers his time serving on the executive board to create greener cities and building healthy mindsets towards nature with Keep Durham Beautiful, a Keep America Beautiful affiliate, and Durham Public Schools Hub Farm.

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JOSEPH WILKINS: Hello, my name is Dr. Joseph LaRon Wilkins. I am an assistant professor at Howard University. I study atmospheric chemistry as it relates to air pollution and air quality along the landscape. So, I look at how pollution moves across from satellite resources, as well as ground-based instruments. So, this is a form of remote sensing, as well as using chemicals’ transport models. So, this is fancy mathematical equations that predict where pollution and things are going to go, such as the weather is predicted.


Interview with SciLine

How does smoke from wildfires travel through the atmosphere?


JOSEPH WILKINS: It seems simple, but it’s not, So, smoke from wildfires, once it’s emitted into the atmosphere, you have to take into consideration what was the source of the burning. So, what is the catalyst, so to speak? So how hot was the thing? Was it a plant? Was it a tree? Was it a bush? All these things can determine how high the smoke goes up into the atmosphere. So once these things go up to a certain elevation, it is then hit upon by some winds, for example. So, if the winds are going 10 to 15 mph, then it will go typically near the source. If it’s hit by a lot stronger winds at higher altitude, then they’re going to go a lot further downwind. So, generally the same way you would look at a frontal passage or a weather system moving is the same way the air quality moves around.

How do scientists project where smoke from wildfires will end up?


JOSEPH WILKINS: So, the way we predict how fires will move around is we use mathematical equations in the form of a chemical transport model or a trajectory model. So, this is just fancy terminology for predicting how things are going to do. So, you have a starting point and a starting amount of information. So, you have the weather, temperature, pressure, humidity—all of these different factors we call the state of the atmosphere. So, you have that starting point, and you have this thing that you were looking at and the area that you’re looking at. And then from that point, you can predict based off the weather conditions, the atmospheric conditions—so such as the wind or the direction of the wind—where things are going to end up and how long they will last in the atmosphere. So, this is where our chemistry friends come into play. And they can simply tell us: Hey, if you have this particular pollutant in the atmosphere, or this chemical in the atmosphere, it will last this amount of time—or lifetime. So, you have some that last on the order of hours, some that last on the order of weeks, days or months. And so typically you can just take that information, and you could move it along as he would predicting where the rain is going to be in the next 10 days or five days. And you could do the same thing with pollution.

How do smoke from wildfires and particles from other sources contribute to air pollution?


JOSEPH WILKINS: This is something that we’ve been looking at for quite a bit of time. So, smoke from fires has been quite a bit of an argument for the past couple of years for many scientists. And so, we know that a lot of aerosols or particles of different sizes are emitted from these things. To what degree these things are emitted is the argument point. However, we do know for a fact that about 40% of the harmful air that we’re breathing on a typical basis is from these welfare cases. And so, we’ve seen upwards of 60 to 70% in some cases. In some cases on a down year, you’ll get 10 to 20%. And so, we know that we have to study these things more.

How does air quality affect human health?


JOSEPH WILKINS: Many different ways. And so, we have it from we call acute impacts. So, these are—maybe you’re sick for a day of work. Maybe you can’t breathe as good as you can, so you have acute like asthma episodes or respiratory issues. And these are just as simple as coughs or lack of being able to breathe fully—all the way up to what we call mortality. And so, you can die, essentially, from negative air quality impacts. And we have everything in between. So, you can have respiratory failure. You can have heart disease, that—these are kind of things from long term impacts. So we have long term and short term—and all everything in between. So, you have to really look at the individual. And we have certain folks that are more susceptible to these things. So, if you have asthma such as myself, you are more susceptible to bad quality if you’re under the age of five or over the age of 65. So, there’s different factors that play as well as how healthy are your systems.

How can we minimize the negative impacts of poor air quality?


JOSEPH WILKINS: The best way to minimize the negative is impacts of poor air quality is to, one, stay inside. That’s the simplest way. Stay inside, and then make sure that your air filter systems for your home, or your school, or wherever you’re going to be inside is up to par. And so, the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of these type of filters. We call them HEPA filters. So, they’re graded at different ratings. And each rating allows different blockage of different particles that are coming into your home. So, that’s the first thing you can do is look at your apps the same way you would as rain or any type of storm. You wouldn’t go outside in a hurricane. So don’t go outside when it’s a better quality day. And then from there, the next thing you can do is if you have to go outside, such as you’re an outdoor worker, or if it’s an emergency case, or you just need to go to that grocery store for whatever reason, then wear a mask. So, these are KN95, the same as you would during COVID. Protect yourself whether it’s at minimum a cloth mask, which we highly recommend at least the KN95 or better. However, wear masks, protect yourself, and limit your exposure. And so, if you have to be out there, try to limit how much air you’re breathing in, which is what, you ask? How much air you breathe in is how much you’re working outside. So, if you’re running, if you’re jogging, if you’re stretching, if you’re lifting something heavy, this causes you to take in more air. So, you want to limit those type of things that are like we call strenuous activities. And so, this is how you can limit your your exposures.

How can forest management decisions affect air quality?


JOSEPH WILKINS: Forest management decisions are one of the key factors to air quality these days. And so—with a little bit of background I’ll add: Nine out of 10 fires are started by humans. And so this is a very alarming factor that we have to deal with. And some of these are friendly fires, which is the ones we want. We call them prescribed burns that are in controlled environments by folks who are knowledgeable of those things. And those fires on the landscape can help mitigate some of the large wildfires that we’re seeing these days, such as the ones in Canada, for example. And then you have anything in between to where you have a rogue campfire or a cigarette butt that just starts a mega fire. And so all of these fires can help contribute to what we’re looking at. So, the best thing we can do is try to mitigate those.

Who is at risk for experiencing poor outdoor air quality?



JOSEPH WILKINS: Air quality is not something that only impacts folks that see it, for example. It’s something that we generally don’t see. And so, it’s something that it’s impacting us at mostly any particularly given time. So right now, we’re speaking about 90% of the United States is covered with smoke. Whether you see that smoke or not is irrelevant. However, you’re breathing it. And at any given point in time, there’s something on this planet that is on fire. So, in a general given year, we’re talking about 30 million Americans that are exposed to what we call this wildfire smoke and comorbidities. So that you have other factors as well, such as heat and other climate change impacts. And so, we have to prepare people for this because on a given year in the United States, we’re talking about 60,000 deaths is a really average year that’s related to outdoor pollution, and it can go up to a million or two globally. And so, there’s even been years where you’ve seen 7 to 9 million deaths. And so, this is something that, again, is it going anywhere, and we have to prepare.

How are reporters doing covering wildfire smoke and outdoor air quality?

[Posted August 9, 2023 | Download video]