How does air pollution from forest fires and volcano eruptions compare

How does air pollution from forest fires and volcano eruptions compare to that created by industrial smokestacks and car tailpipes?

—James Stovall, via e-mail

When forest fires occur, they can release significant amounts of gases and soot particles (known as “particulate matter”) into the atmosphere, where wind currents can then carry them great distances across major water bodies and national boundaries. When this pollution touches down in any given populated area, it can cause severe respiratory ailments and aggravate chronic heart and lung conditions. During especially hot and dry summers, forest and wildfires can take a large toll on regional air quality.

Volcanoes can also contribute significantly to atmospheric pollution. Since it started erupting again last September, for example, Mount St. Helens has become the largest source of noxious sulfur dioxide in the state of Washington, beating out the Pacific Northwest”s largest power plants for the distinction. Luckily, though, this active volcano is in a sparsely populated area because people have long known well enough not to take up residency in too close a proximity. As such, its emissions have little effect on human health in the region.

While pollution from forest fires and the occasional volcanic eruption is problematic on a sporadic basis, its impact pales in comparison to that of industrial and automobile emissions, which contribute to millions of respiratory disorders around the world every day of the year, not to mention global warming and its many looming domino effects.

According to research conducted by the American Lung Association, industrial and automotive sources of pollution in the U.S. account for annual emissions of 25 million tons of nitrogen oxide, 20 million tons of volatile organic compounds, 100 million tons of carbon monoxide, 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide, four million tons of airborne heavy metals, and five million tons of particulate matter. Forest fires, by comparison, emit about 25 million tons of particulate matter in total during the hottest and driest of years.

While there is little if anything that can be done about volcanic eruptions except to be adequately prepared for them when they occur, forest wildfires of the news-making variety are largely preventable through sound forest management practices, primarily involving the use of smaller, “controlled burns” that eliminate the “tinder box effect” that results from allowing unchecked buildup of wood debris on the forest floor.

Similarly, human-caused industrial and automotive pollution issues can be addressed through the good faith implementation and enforcement of myriad laws, regulations, programs and strategies, as well as the development and application of emerging alternative technologies that, particularly in the automobile industry, are becoming more and more of a reality every day.

CONTACTS: American Lung Association, www.lungusa.org ; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health, www.epa.gov/airnow/smoke2/smokecover.html .