The health risks of smoke from fires

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State public health officials and experts are increasingly concerned about residents’ chronic exposure to toxin-laden smoke.

This year saw the largest number of fires in the past decade, with more than 59,000 fires burning nearly 7 million acres nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Although the total area burned is less than in some recent years, heavy smoking still blanketed communities across the country.

Climate change is causing more frequent and severe fires, harming Americans’ health, said Lisa Patel, deputy executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, which raises awareness about the health effects of climate change.

“The data we have is very scary,” he said. “We are experiencing a natural experiment right now: we have never had fires so frequently.”

As researchers focus on public health effects, state health and environmental officials across the country have had to issue more air quality warnings and provide guidance and shelter to residents struggling during periods of heavy smoking. of fires.

And while fires typically create more immediate and visible disruptions to people’s lives in the West, researchers fear that particulate matter may actually affect the breathing of more people in the more densely populated eastern states.

Patel sees the effects of the fires in his work as a pediatrician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, treating more underweight and premature women and babies at the NICU as wildfires rage in Northern California.

Studies show that chronic exposure to smoke from fires can cause asthma and pneumonia and increase the risk of lung cancer, stroke, heart failure and sudden death. The very old and the very young are the most vulnerable. Particulates in smoke from fires are 10 times more harmful to children’s respiratory health than other air pollutants, according to a 2021 study in the journal Pediatrics.

Because Seattle currently has the worst air quality in the world

What worries the experts is the particulate matter in the air smaller than 2.5 microns in size; there are about 25,000 microns in one inch. People inhale these microscopic fragments, which can then embed themselves deep into their lungs, irritating the lining and inflaming the tissues. The particles are small enough to enter the bloodstream, which can lead to other short- and long-term health effects.

Particulates in smoke from fires are even hampering national progress in reducing air pollution after decades of improvement.

The Clean Air Act has substantially reduced the level of toxic particles from industrial and automotive pollution across the country since 1970, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But according to some researchers, air pollution is expected to worsen in parts of the West due to fires. A United Nations report this year warned of a “global fire crisis,” saying the likelihood of catastrophic fires could increase to 57 percent by the end of the century.

Researchers are trying to better understand how the most frequent fires affect human biology.

‘That sinking feeling’

Keith Bein, a professional research associate at the University of California at Davis, created a rapid response mobile research unit in 2017 that deploys to wildfires throughout the state. He is like a storm chaser but for fires.

With its mobile unit, Bein can measure the particulates in the air, return the samples to his laboratory and then determine their toxicology and chemical composition. Near these fires, he said, the smoke is so bad it seems inevitable.

“The smoke comes in and you get that sinking feeling again,” he said.

Massive fires that tear apart communities are becoming more common. Fires not only burn trees, but also synthetic materials in homes. And with repeated exposure to different particulates, the health risks are more pronounced and can evolve into chronic conditions, Bein said.

Researchers are just beginning to understand how more frequent fires in residential areas affect human health, he said.

“It happens more frequently every summer,” he said. “The duration of the fires is growing. Public exposure to smoking is also growing. Unrepeatable events occur every summer. This is a different kind of exposure ”.

In 2020, an Environment International study found winter flu seasons in Montana were four to five times worse after bad fire seasons, which typically last from July to September. The findings shocked study lead author Erin Landguth, an associate professor at the University of Montana.

Smoke from wildfires harms more people in the eastern United States than in the western United States, according to a study

“We know that hospitalizations for asthma and other respiratory conditions increase within days or weeks of fires,” he said. “The thought that this could potentially lead to effects later on and how it could affect our immune systems is really frightening.”

Landguth is expanding his studio to all western states. He expects to find a similar trend throughout the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest. The monsoon season in Arizona and New Mexico could disrupt the trend there, he said, while air pollution is already so bad in California due to smog and other pollutants that it may be difficult to pinpoint how the fires are damaging health. Human.

But fires are not only in the West, nor is their impact on health geographically isolated. Some fires burn so intensely at such high temperatures that smoke rises into the atmosphere, where strong winds can carry the smoke over long distances.

This was evident in 2021, when the sun turned red and the sky turned hazy over New York City and across the Northeast, as smoke moved from massive wildfires in California, Oregon and other western states.

Smoking also harms the health of more people in the eastern United States than in the West, said Katelyn O’Dell, a postdoctoral researcher at George Washington University, who released this finding in a study on GeoHealth. in 2021.

Smoke from wildfires has contributed to more asthma deaths and hospital visits in Eastern communities than in Western ones, she and other researchers found, partly due to higher population density.

The smoke that affects the eastern states does not only come from the west; there are fires and prescribed burns all over the United States, O’Dell said.

“Sometimes it’s easy to feel distant from the fires and their impacts when you are away from the flames of these great Western fires that make the news,” he said. “But the fires have an impact on the health of the United States”

The next orange sunset people are enjoying should be a time to check out a mobile app for air quality, he said.

In Minnesota, the state has issued 46 air quality alerts since 2015, according to the State Pollution Control Agency. Of these, 34 were due to smoke from the fires and 26 of these were emitted last year.

This took state officials by surprise, said Kathy Norlien, a researcher at the Minnesota Department of Health. The risk of smoke from wildfires comes not only from plumes moving off the west coast and Canada, but also from fires in Boundary Waters, a lake-filled region in the northern part of the state. Norlien said she expects the problem to get worse in the coming years.

“At this point, we are planning the worst-case scenario,” he said. “We have not had the measure that the Western states have. But with climate change and concern over drought and drought conditions, planning is of the utmost importance. “

Norlien regularly meets with members of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and other state officials on how to get the message across to state residents about the growing public health fire risk, encouraging residents to register for air quality alerts. State officials have also set up community centers and larger buildings as safe airfields.

The public plays a huge role in both prevention (nearly 90 percent of fires are man-made, according to US government data) and fire adaptation, many experts said.

For people living in fire-prone areas, there are non-flammable building materials for new homes and upgraded indoor air purifiers and HVAC systems. But these solutions may be too expensive for some families, Patel said.

He advises families how to stay safe affordably during the fire season by encouraging the use of N95 and KN95 masks, which have been instrumental in fighting the spread of the coronavirus. He also shares designs for DIY air filtration systems.

But he stressed that the fires will continue to rage across the country and cause adverse health effects unless climate change is held back by serious public policy. Until then, climate change will continue to be the biggest threat to public health, she said.

“Summer was a time when I was looking forward to it,” he said, “but now I look at it in terror with the heat and the fires.”

This article was produced by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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