(CNN) — The thick blanket of smoke over the Northeast and Midwest, funneled south from the wildfires in Canada, is packed with toxic pollutants that are bad for everyone’s health.
But unlike man-made pollution, smoke from wildfires cannot be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is charged with protecting human health and the environment.
The EPA and the landmark Clean Air Act treat wildfires as exceptional natural events, that is, events that are not caused by humans and do not occur regularly.
“You can’t say it’s illegal for lightning to strike a tree and set it on fire,” said James Boylan, a senior air quality official with the Georgia Division of Environment and a member of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. “It’s hard to regulate something that occurs naturally like forest fires.”
But the human-caused climate crisis favors the generation of larger and more frequent wildfires as temperatures rise, and has renewed the debate over regulation.
The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a group of physicians, state environmental officials, and academics tasked with advising the EPA on air quality, sent letters to EPA Administrator Michael Regan asking the agency to review more carefully if the smoke from the forest fires should be classified as a natural or exceptional event.
“Many of the (committee) members felt that this is something that the EPA should reconsider and not rule out, especially with climate change and more frequent fires,” committee member Dr. Mark Frampton, a specialist in lung diseases from the University of Rochester Medical Center. “It’s certainly having adverse effects on people’s health.”
Committee chair Lianne Sheppard, a professor of public health at the University of Washington, said that while her committee’s recommendation doesn’t look at whether smoke from wildfires could or should be regulated, it emphasizes that violent fires are becoming more common.
“Treating these as exceptional events implies that they are unusual. But they are becoming so common that, from a public health protection standpoint, it doesn’t make sense,” Sheppard told CNN.
Other environmental experts called on the agency to stop classifying wildfires as natural events.
“These things are clearly, according to some in the scientific community, linked to climate change. It’s related to humans,” said Jonathan Skinner-Thompson, a former EPA attorney and law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Experts say the task is extraordinarily complicated, made even more difficult by the fact that the current smoke choking Northeastern cities comes from wildfires in another country.
“There are some things that we just can’t control,” Boylan said. Unfortunately, there isn’t much [que hacer] in regulatory terms in addition to greenhouse gas reductions. People have to take care of their own health and make smart decisions on days like this.”
It’s up to people to heed air quality advisories and stay indoors, not exercise outside and wear masks to avoid inhaling toxic smoke, Boylan and Frampton said.
What can be done?
If the EPA can’t regulate wildfire smoke completely, experts said it can tweak the regulations to make it easier for states and Native American tribes to carry out prescribed burns — essentially, fighting fire with fire.
Although the EPA considers wildfires to be natural events, prescribed burns are classified as human-caused, which means there are more regulatory hurdles to overcome before initiating a prescribed burn, Skinner-Thompson said.
“I understand that tension there, but the EPA and others have published studies saying the health benefits of prescribed fire emissions outweigh the cost,” he added.
The experts noted that the EPA will issue regulations to address the underlying causes of human-caused climate change: pollution from burning oil, gas, and coal.
“By regulating greenhouse gases, in theory, that could reduce the number of wildfires, and the EPA has a number of initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases,” Boylan said.
But ultimately, both are long-term solutions.
Room for Congress to Act
For the EPA to make significant changes to the way it treats wildfire smoke, Congress will likely have to weigh in on the Clean Air Act. That could come with a lot of pitfalls of its own, according to Skinner-Thompson.
“In light of the current political climate, I bet both parties would like to amend the Clean Air Act and update it,” he said, adding: “They are going to have very little appetite for consensus changes to the Clean Air Act. to address forest fires.
Western lawmakers, who represent states with the biggest wildfire threat, said seeing smoke fill Washington this week was worrying but also gave them hope that more could be done to prevent and fight the fires.
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a Democrat, said the smoke engulfing Washington could bring more urgency and understanding about the wildfires from his East Coast colleagues.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but a couple of years ago when we had the smoke from the California fires, it made everyone pay attention here in a way that they didn’t,” Bennett told CNN. “I hope we will act as a result of this.”
“We have to recognize that given climate change, we’re going to have more of these fires,” Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah told CNN. “The way we have addressed them in the past will be insufficient for the future.”