Wildfires throughout California and Oregon have fouled the air so that it is unbreathable in areas that run along much of the west coast and over 100 miles inland. The problem is so tremendous that some areas have the most polluted air in the world today. Usually, these places are in India and China.
White Salmon, Washington, has an air quality index of 640, which is literally off the charts of air pollution measurements. The town sits on the border of Oregon and Washington states. Its nickname is “Where the Sun Meets the Rain.” Its population is about 2,200 people.
The widely used and respected World Air Quality Index project tracks air pollution in tens of thousands of locations around the world. The worst places almost always include parts of India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the air is fouled by factories and household use of polluting substances for warmth and cooking. In some western states, the figures are well above these traditionally most polluted areas worldwide as people are plagued by smoke from wildfires that are the largest in the history of the region.
The World Air Quality Index uses data including “measurement of particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), Ozone (O3), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) emissions.” Most real-time data measures PM2.5 and PM10 information. It identifies good air quality as posing no danger to humans.
On its index, good air quality gets a score of 0 to 50. At an index between 51 and 100, the air is labeled as “moderate.” For most people, this level is acceptable. For people with lung problems, it poses a small threat. At 101 to 150 on the scale, air quality is unhealthy for people with asthma or lung issues. “Unhealthy air,” at 151 to 200 on the scale, means everyone in the population faces some health risk. At 201 to 300, the air is “very unhealthy.” These locations often post warnings that air pollution could affect the health of everyone. Finally, at the worst end of the scale, air pollution is “hazardous” and indexes above 301. The entire population in these areas faces acute health danger. The worst air quality in India today is in Patti Mehar, where the index is 277.
Hazardous air quality is rare. Warnings at this level are occasionally posted in India and China’s largest cities. The air quality is almost never at this level in the western hemisphere.
The wildfires pose an immediate risk to property and the lives of people in their paths. Beyond that, the measurement of air quality shows that the hazards to health also exist many miles away from the fires themselves and will not abate until the fires do. These fires may not be put out entirely for weeks. In terms of air quality, places in this region may have the worst air quality in the world indefinitely.
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