DOES WILDFIRE HARM YOUR HEALTH?

WHERE DOES WILDFIRE OCCUR?

Wildfires can occur anywhere. Common areas in the United States include western states.  Many western states are unknown for heat, drought, and frequent thunderstorms.  All of these environmental factors make conditions just right for forest fires and create dangerous wildfire smoke. Some of the worst states for wildfire problems include Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and California. Overall, wildfires can occur around the world and in most of the 50 states.

HOW DOES WILDFIRE SMOKE AFFECT YOUR BODY?

Wildfire smoke is associated with a range of adverse health effects. These include a heightened risk of developing breathing problems for individuals with preexisting respiratory problems, a greater likelihood of problems from COVID-19, and higher rates of heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems. 

WILDFIRE HEALTH IMPACTS

During one record-breaking wildfire season, a distraught couple brought a young boy with grave breathing difficulties to the emergency department in Portland. A quick diagnosis established that he had a severe asthma attack. Doctors found the attack was mainly the result of exposure to wildfire smoke that had wrapped around Portland and its surroundings. The boy recovered quickly after receiving expert care and the hospital’s clean air. Later the hospital discharged him with no lasting issues from his wildfire smoke exposure.  Unfortunately, some people who inhale wildfire smoke are not as fortunate.  Some people suffer long-term health problems after smoke inhalation.

It’s not a surprise that the boy suffered such a severe attack, given the levels of wildfire-related smoke pollution in Portland and parts of the U.S. West Coast. The density of pollutants in the air around the city exceeded 400 in some days, according to an Environmental Protection Agency index, which is extremely hazardous. Typically, levels below 50 are considered safe, while levels in the 200 to 300 range are regarded as very unhealthy.

Such high levels of wildfire-related smoke pollution are dangerous for everyone.  However, people with asthma and other respiratory conditions are at a higher risk. The small particles that fire thrust into the air can bother the lungs. In some cases, a person’s lungs can be so affected that airways close.  When this happens fatal respiratory distress occurs.

HOW DOES WILDFIRE SMOKE AFFECT YOUR LUNGS?

In the short term, smoke inhalation can damage elements of the immune system that protect lungs from pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. Such exposure is also associated with spikes in heart attack, arrhythmia and stroke cases, according to Dr. Mary Prunicki, the director of Air Pollution and Health Research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford.

Long term effects of smoke inhalation have yet to be exhaustively studied, since wildfires tend to be contained relatively quickly. Still, data from fossil fuel pollution studies suggests that constant exposure to heavy smoke can lead to spikes in pulmonary conditions and cardiovascular problems, notes Dr. Joel Kaufman, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, medicine, and epidemiology at the University of Washington.

WILDFIRE SMOKE AND HEALTH

In addition, such exposure can increase the likelihood of developing diabetes and dementia. Research also shows that it can trigger asthma in children who are genetically predisposed but wouldn’t have developed the condition otherwise. Worse, it can also increase the risk of dangerous complications of COVID-19, according to a study by Edoardo Conticinia, Bruno Frediania and Dario Carob, conducted in northern Italy. Dire stuff, to be sure.

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR HOME FROM WILDFIRES?

The best way of protecting yourself and your kids from wildfire smoke is by moving to a facility or location with clean air. If that’s not possible, the next best option is to stay indoors with the windows closed. If you live in a house with faulty sealing that allows smoke ingress, use weather stripping to seal off your windows and doors.

However, even with windows closed, wildfire smoke can still find its way into your home. It will easily enter your home every time you open the door. For this reason, experts recommend you purchase a high-efficiency particulate air filter (HEPA filter).  HEPA filters help to keep the air inside your house clean. These filters are costly. If your budget can’t stretch that far, find a smaller one or a portable air cleaner.  These smaller filters can clean the room where you and your family spend most of your time. If your budget is especially tight, consider making a do-it-yourself air filter.  You can make one from a value-13 filter (MERV-13 filter) and a box fan. While it may not be as effective as its manufactured counterparts, it is better than nothing at all.

If you have air conditioning, you should set it to recirculate the air in your house instead of pumping in more from outside, and remember to check the filters in your air conditioner regularly, as they can become clogged by smoke particles and stop working.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM WILDFIRES?

If you have to go outside an N95 or N99 mask can help limit your smoke intake. Cloth masks do not filter most particles found in wildfire smoke effectively. Therefore you should only use them in a pinch. Furthermore, unless absolutely necessary, avoid going outdoors if pollution levels are at 150 or higher. Do not engage in strenuous activities until the air clears. Finally, avoid frying foods, vacuuming, and other activities that can degrade the air quality in your home.

Wildfire smoke is associated with a range of adverse health effects. These include a heightened risk of developing breathing problems for individuals with preexisting respiratory problems.

Thankfully, a range of protective measures can help you reduce your risks if you are exposed. The most preferable is moving to a place with clean air. However, if that’s not possible, staying indoors and filtering the air in your home are the next best options.

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