Smoke from wildfires in West may impact public health across the US

By ThinkReliability Staff

A significant portion of the United States is currently being affected by wildfires. The Valley and Butte fires in California, two of the worst in that state’s history, have killed five (all civilians found dead in their homes). The Tassajara Fire has resulted in another civilian fatality. The Rough Fire (also in California) has burned more than 141,000 acres. The US Wildfire Activity Public Information Map and National Wildlife Coordinating Group Incident Information System shows dozens more fires across the Western United States.

The wildfires are also impacting the population in areas not directly impacted by the fires. Public safety has been impacted by the deaths and risk for injury. Worker safety has been impacted as well; four firefighters were burned in the Valley fire. Even animal safety has been impacted; animals were left to fend for themselves in many areas that were evacuated rapidly due to changing conditions, leading to risk of injury or death. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been burned and thousands of buildings destroyed, causing a potential long-term impact on area businesses. More than 15,000 workers have been deployed to assist in fighting the fires.

The wildfires are also affecting air quality in areas not directly impacted by the fires. The smoke from these wildfires is causing environmental and health issues including asthma, chronic lung disease and even heart attacks. Janice Nolan, the assistant vice president for national policy at the American Lung Association says of recent air quality, “It’s really bad. I hadn’t seen ‘code maroon’ days, which is the most hazardous air quality, in years.” (The Air Quality Index reports the quality of outdoor air in color categories. Maroon, or “hazardous” represents a level of air pollution that means the entire population is likely to experience serious health effects. Lower categories indicate when members of more sensitive groups may experience health concerns.)

Health issues can occur when smoke is breathed in and enters the respiratory system. The organic particles that make up smoke can be so small they can bypass the body’s natural defenses (such as mucus and hair in the nose). The particles can even enter the bloodstream. This occurs any time a person is exposed to smoke. Says Sylvia Vanderspek, the chief air quality planner for the California Air Resources Board, “If you can smell smoke, then basically you’re breathing it.”

An average person can breathe in about 35 micrograms of particulate matter for only 24 hours before experiencing health problems. Unfortunately, the California air quality board has measured levels of particulate matter up to 34 micrograms in a day . . . and the fires have been burning for weeks and may continue for weeks more. Weather conditions impact not only the wildfires themselves but also where the smoke from those fires goes. Weather conditions this summer have meant that smoke issues have been seen into the Midwest.

The only really effective protection against health impacts from smoke is to stay inside with air conditioning on recirculate if in an affected area (based on the local air quality index). This has meant schools are holding indoor recess and sports practices and outdoor festivals have had to cancel performances. Idaho is considering establishing clean air shelters so the population can avoid breathing in smoke. Regrettably, most air masks won’t help, as they don’t protect against the tiny particles of concern. Instead, health officials reiterate that if the air quality in your area is poor, stay indoors to protect your health.