Canadian wildfire smoke should be wakeup call for West Virginia officials

In a state with high rates of medical conditions, the health effects of climate change can’t be ignored

July 11, 2023 3:00 am
A loaded coal barge floats down the Kanawha river beside the gold dome of the West Virginia state Capitol building. Smoke in the background blurs the mountains.

Smoke from the Canadian wildfires traveled by West Virginia’s Capitol building on June 28, 2023. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Watch)

June ended it as it began, with the skies in the northeast United States blanketed by smoke from hundreds of wildfires in Canada. In West Virginia, we were fortunate enough to avoid the worst effects for most of the month, but by the last week of June, we couldn’t escape the smoke and its impact on air quality. 

Wildfire smoke can contain many harmful chemicals or materials, but what we should be concerned about is a pollution called PM 2.5. Named for their size, PM 2.5 particles are small and can work their way into our lungs and bloodstream. When levels are high, people can experience coughing or shortness of breath, but it also has the potential to threaten vulnerable populations such as the elderly, infants, and people with chronic health conditions like asthma or heart issues.

Californians and others in the Pacific Northwest have made living with wildfire smoke — and its dangerous pollutants — the norm for decades. During wildfire season they check the air quality on their phones out of habit and reduce their time outside accordingly. Our West Coast friends were wearing N95 masks long before COVID-19 introduced them into the everyday lexicon. 

But that’s not the case on the East Coast. Apart from the areas of the state that experience routine, destructive flooding, for many West Virginians, the hazy skies combined with the recent heat wave may be the first or most concrete example of the layered effects of climate change. It’s only going to get worse.

When it comes to air pollutants, we should be especially concerned in West Virginia. Our state has high rates of comorbidities such as obesity, asthma, diabetes, and we have one of the highest percentages of elderly residents. Studies have found that ER visits increase in the days following wildfire smoke exposure, and the health effects can be long lasting. We can ill afford to have increased need for hospital visits in a state with already limited access to health care.

Of course, this particularly bad wildfire season in Canada isn’t going to bring the world crashing down around us, but it’s a reminder of what lies ahead of us thanks to climate change. Hotter and drier weather in heavily forested areas will lead to more frequent — and devastating — wildfires. Compounded over time, this will lead to worse air quality and all the negative health effects that come with it.

We should take the shared experience of the wildfire smoke in our skies as a sign that it’s time that we look around us and acknowledge how our climate and environment have already changed, and how unequipped we currently are to deal with it.

It’s important to remember that PM 2.5 isn’t just in wildfire smoke — it’s all around us. It’s in industrial pollution, automobile exhaust, construction sites, home heating, and yes, gas stoves. The country has made significant strides in reducing PM 2.5 concentrations over time, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a rule to further reduce the amount in our air. West Virginia lawmakers and the state Department of Environmental Protection, perhaps unsurprisingly, came out against the proposed rule. 

For a state that has produced so much coal and natural gas, which are two tremendous contributors to climate change, we’ve been relatively shielded from some of the most drastic effects the rest of our country sees — wildfires, drought and agriculture loss, extreme heat and hurricanes, to name a few.

We should take the shared experience of the wildfire smoke in our skies as a sign that it’s time that we look around us and acknowledge how our climate and environment have already changed, and how unequipped we currently are to deal with it. Last week marked a record for the four hottest days ever recorded globally. Heavy, frequent rains have overworked our state’s crumbling infrastructure and flooded homes. Flood insurance costs are rising and nationally some insurers are pulling out of home insurance altogether. 

The last few weeks in Charleston we’ve dealt with patterns of extreme heat and hard-hitting rains. The wildfire smoke two weeks ago was happening against the backdrop of then-upcoming Sternwheel Regatta, a time for celebration. Vulnerable people were hardly warned to stay indoors while the rest of us were expected to stand in extreme heat with little shade, under a veiled sky pretending that everything was fine.

Solutions to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and to reduce our carbon emissions exist. But so far they haven’t been debated seriously in our state house or in most city halls. Whether it’s this wildfire or the next flood, our local and state leaders must take a stronger stance on protecting us from damage that is already happening and what is down the road. 


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Quenton King
Quenton King

Now residing in Charleston, West Virginia, Quenton King is originally from the state’s Eastern Panhandle. He works in environmental policy. He is on the advisory board of Reimagine Appalachia.