Wildfires have increased in frequency and severity over the past two decades, threatening to undo substantial air quality improvements. We investigate the relationship between wildfire smoke exposure and learning outcomes across the United States using standardized test scores from 2009–2016 for nearly 11,700 school districts and satellite-derived estimates of daily smoke exposure. Relative to a school year with no smoke, average cumulative smoke-attributable PM2.5 (surface particulate matter <2.5 μg m−3) exposure during the school year (~35 μg m−3) reduces test scores by ~0.15% of a standard deviation. These impacts are more pronounced among younger students and are observed across differing levels of economic disadvantage and racial/ethnic composition. Additionally, we project that smoke PM2.5 exposure in 2016 reduced discounted future earnings by nearly $1.7 billion ($111 per student). Roughly 80% of these costs are borne by disadvantaged districts. Our findings quantify a previously unaccounted for social cost of wildfire that is likely to worsen under a warming climate.
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The weather data used in this study are available through the Parameter elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model (PRISM) Climate Group at Oregon State University (https://prism.oregonstate.edu). Student test performance and district-level covariate data are available through the Stanford Education Data Archive (SEDA) (https://purl.stanford.edu/db586ns4974). School location and student population data are available through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Fire perimeter data used to calculate the distance of school districts to fire perimeters are available through the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) (https://data-nifc.opendata.arcgis.com/datasets/nifc::interagency-fire-perimeter-history-all-years). Smoke plume annotations are available through the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS) Hazard Mapping System (HMS) (https://www.ospo.noaa.gov/Products/land/hms.html#data). Daily gridded estimates of PM2.5 concentrations are available from Di et al. (2021) (https://doi.org/10.7927/0rvr-4538; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2019.104909). Processed data to replicate the results in the main text and Supplementary Information are available at https://github.com/jeffwen/wildfire_smoke_education_public.
The code to replicate the results and figures in the main text and supplementary material are available at https://github.com/jeffwen/wildfire_smoke_education_public.
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We thank the ECHOLab at Stanford University and the Exploring the ‘Hidden Burden’ of Climate Change and Pollution on Mental Health and Conflict session at American Geophysical Union 2020 for helpful discussions and comments. M.B. thanks the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (ID No. 76555) for funding. J.W. gratefully acknowledges partial funding from Stanford Data Science for this work. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Wen, J., Burke, M. Lower test scores from wildfire smoke exposure. Nat Sustain 5, 947–955 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00956-y
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