Assessing the Impact of Wildfires on the Use of Black Carbon as an Indicator of Traffic Exposures in Environmental Epidemiology Studies

Geohealth. 2021 Jun 1;5(6):e2020GH000347. doi: 10.1029/2020GH000347. eCollection 2021 Jun.


Epidemiological studies frequently use black carbon (BC) as a proxy for traffic-related air pollution (TRAP). However, wildfire smoke (WFS) represents an important source of BC not often considered when using BC as a proxy for TRAP. Here, we examined the potential for WFS to bias TRAP exposure assessments based on BC measurements. Weekly integrated BC samples were collected across the Denver, CO region from May to November 2018. We collected 609 filters during our sampling campaigns, 35% of which were WFS-impacted. For each filter we calculated an average BC concentration. We assessed three GIS-based indicators of TRAP for each sampling location: annual average daily traffic within a 300 m buffer, the minimum distance to a highway, and the sum of the lengths of roadways within 300 m. Median BC concentrations were 9% higher for WFS-impacted filters (median = 1.14 μg/m3, IQR = 0.23 μg/m3) than nonimpacted filters (median = 1.04 μg/m3, IQR = 0.48 μg/m3). During WFS events, BC concentrations were elevated and expected spatial gradients in BC were reduced. We conducted a simulation study to estimate TRAP exposure misclassification as the result of regional WFS. Our results suggest that linear health effect estimates were biased away from the null when WFS was present. Thus, exposure assessments relying on BC as a proxy for TRAP may be biased by wildfire events. Alternative metrics that account for the influence of "brown" carbon associated with biomass burning may better isolate the effects of traffic emissions from those of other black carbon sources.

Keywords: black carbon; health effects; wildfires.