The wildfires’ blazes may only be the beginning of what the people of California, Oregon, and Washington will have to endure, as the smoke from the wildfires drastically reduces the air quality in the area, spreading soot, toxic gasses like carbon monoxide, and tiny particles that can penetrate the lungs and heart.
This air pollution released by the wildfires could have lasting health consequences for residents, especially for the elderly, infants, and those with asthma and pulmonary disease.
Symptoms of Wildfire Smoke Inhalation
Anyone who is exposed to wildfire smoke can experience symptoms such as:
- Itchy, burning eyes
- Runny nose
- Difficulty breathing
Those with pre-existing lung or heart conditions could experience even more severe symptoms, such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Chest discomfort
Long-Term Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke
The full health impacts of wildfire smoke are not clearly known, as it is difficult for researchers to differentiate wildfire smoke pollution from other sources of emissions, such as vehicle and factories.
In recent years, researchers have begun looking into what exact compounds we’re breathing in during wildfires. As the agricultural industry uses more and more chemicals like pesticides and fire retardants to treat farmlands and forests, the question of what happens to these chemicals when they burn and are released into the air has grown in importance.
“When forests and farmlands catch fire, the chemicals applied to them burn, too, and potentially travel much longer distances than where they were first used,” said Sarah Carratt, a pharmacology and toxicology graduate student at UC Davis and author of a review that recommends increased studies into the compounds found in wildfire smoke.
The review, titled “Pesticides, wildfire suppression chemicals, and California wildfires: A human health perspective,” states that although researchers know that wildfire smoke is more toxic than other smoke, no studies into wildfires have identified what exactly makes it so toxic.
“It’s possible that what distinguishes it are the chemicals humans add to the environment, but researchers haven’t paid enough attention to this yet,” said Jerold Last, professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at UC Davis Health and senior author of the review.
All Smoke is Dangerous
While more research into wildfire smoke and its health implications is needed, it is widely agreed upon by medical researchers that breathing in any smoke can increase your chance of heart disease, lung disease, and stroke.
Air pollution in general is associated with an increased risk of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and adverse pregnancy outcomes, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Science. A 2016 study even found a potential link between air pollution and type 2 diabetes incidence.
Smoke can also exacerbate existing conditions for certain at-risk groups, according to the EPA. People most at-risk during wildfires include:
- People with heart and lung disease (such as asthma or ischemic heart disease)
- People with diabetes
- Pregnant women
How to Protect Yourself and Your Family From Wildfire Smoke
While the wildfires continue to ravage the west coast, it’s important to protect yourself and your family from smoke inhalation as much as possible.
Take the following steps, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to safe stay and minimize your exposure to toxic wildfire smoke:
- Stay indoors with the windows and doors closed.
- If it is hot, run the air conditioner instead of opening windows. Be sure to run your air conditioner with the fresh-air intake closed and a clean filter to prevent smoke from getting indoors.
- While indoors, keep your air free of additional pollution by not burning candles, turning on your fireplace or gas stove, or smoking.
- If you have a pre-existing lung disease or heart disease, follow your doctor’s instructions and keep a supply of medication on hand. Call your doctor if you experience symptoms.
- If you need to go outside during low air quality forecasts, use the right mask. Dust masks and surgical masks will not protect your lungs from tiny harmful particles found in wildfire smoke. Instead, use a particulate mask, also known as N-95 or P-100 respirators.
Most importantly, follow local news to learn if you are in the path of a wildfire, advises the CDC. Be prepared to evacuate if officials predict that your home is in the path of the wildfire. Use designated evacuation routes to reach your nearest shelter.