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Stanford researchers looking into air quality deaths

Posted at 11:01 AM, Sep 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 14:48:12-04

After multiple days of smoke-choked skies a stark warning from Stanford researchers about the dangers of that historic poor air quality saying it could be causing thousands of deaths in California. Kris Reyes explains what scientists are calling "the hidden cost" of air pollution.

Two researchers out of Stanford University say all the soot in the air could have resulted in 1,200 extra deaths and 4,800 ER visits in California, just in the last month.

"So, we're not measuring fatality rates in real-time. We're saying we know how much worse the air quality got. We know based on 20 years of Medicare data if you change the air quality that much, how many more deaths do you get, and so it's a combination of those two numbers," said Marshall Burke of Stanford University.

You'd never see it, of course, just looking at the hazy skies but scientists are most worried about what hangs in that air, a kind of pollution that's especially deadly: PM 2.5 or Particulate Matter less than 2.5 microns in size.

Stanford researchers based their findings on how an increase in PM 2.5 would affect the 6 million in California who are age 65 and over. That's why they say 1,200 deaths is actually on the low side of their estimate.

"My hope is that we are attentive to all the bad things that happen when we get these wildfire smokes events," continued Burke. "We get the people are directly in harm's way and we get the very large people who are indirectly in harm's way, these events have much larger costs than we typically realize."

ER Doctor Robin Berrol said he's not surprised by the Stanford calculation, considering what he saw in his own hospital during last month's persistent poor air quality

"As the poor smoke and air quality stayed with us in our environment, then we started to see the numbers rise of people with the coughs, shortness of breath, exacerbation of their chronic lung conditions."

Burke hopes the numbers will drive home the point to take poor air quality seriously and to help those who are at most risk.

Dr. Berroll said more needs to be done to help those who are most at risk, including the elderly, the homeless population, young children with developing lungs.