EPA And Doctors Say Wildfire Smoke Can Cause These Health Risks

smoke from canadian wildfires blows south creating hazy conditions on large swath of eastern us
Here’s How Wildfire Smoke Can Impact Your BodyDavid Dee Delgado - Getty Images

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  • Wildfires in Canada have caused smoke that has moved south into the U.S.

  • Air quality in many parts of the eastern U.S. is poor.

  • There could be long-term health effects of wildfire smoke.

Wildfires in Canada have blanketed much of the eastern U.S. in smoke, causing air quality levels to tank. Currently, New York City is ranked as having the worst air quality in the world—at a level that’s deemed “hazardous”—according to air quality monitoring company IQAir, and many other states are experiencing hazy conditions.

Public health officials have repeatedly warned against going out in poor air quality, with the regional administrator of the Mid-Atlantic office of the Environment Protection Agency urging people to limit strenuous activity outside and circulate indoor air to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams wrote on Twitter Wednesday that the city is “in the worst of the conditions” before urging residents to “mask up and limit your outdoor activities.”

With everything going on, plenty of people are suddenly wondering about the health effects of wildfire smoke. So, what happens to your body near wildfire smoke? Here’s what you need to know.

Why is wildfire smoke dangerous?

First, it’s important to understand what wildfire smoke is. Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, parts of buildings, and other buildings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Any smoke exposure can be hazardous,” says Glenn VanOtteren, M.D., division chief for pulmonology at Corewell Health. “Wildfire smoke can contain a variety of fine particulates which can be a source of inflammation for the body.”

In particular, the particles in wildfire smoke can cause irritation to the eyes and the lungs.”

Particular matter—which is particles in the air—“are so small that they can get into the lungs and potentially the bloodstream,” says Robert Laumbach, M.D., M.P.H., air pollution researcher and associate professor of Clinical Research and Occupational Medicine at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “They can have direct effects on the lungs—worsening of asthma, COPD, and increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke,” he says.

But the effects of wildfire smoke can vary based on how long you’re exposed to it, as well as your health at baseline, the CDC says. “The exposure can trigger exacerbations of underlying illness, particularly in susceptible individuals,” Dr. VanOtteren says. “Just like any other inhalational exposure, whether it be from air pollution, occupational exposures at work, the subsequent damage is largely proportional to the severity of exposure, frequency, and duration of exposure.”

The impact of wildfire smoke exposure in the short-term differs from the impact over the long-term.

What are the health effects of wildfire smoke over the short-term?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says you may experience the following when you’re exposed to wildfire smoke over a few days.

Respiratory symptoms, including:

  • Coughing

  • Phlegm

  • Wheezing

  • Difficulty breathing

Respiratory illness, including:

  • Bronchitis

  • Reduced lung function

  • Increased risk of asthma exacerbation and aggravation of other lung diseases

  • Increased risk of ER visits and hospital admissions

Cardiovascular issues:

  • Heart failure

  • Heart attack

  • Stroke

  • Increased risk of ER visits and hospital admissions

There may also be an increased risk of premature death. “But as long as the exposure is short-term and otherwise well-tolerated, this shouldn't provide long term consequences,” Dr. VanOtteren says.

What are the cumulative health effects of wildfire smoke?

Over multiple days to weeks, you may experience a reduction in lung function, the EPA says.

“Those people that live in areas of more frequent exposures need to be particularly vigilant to avoid exposure to those smoke particles,” Dr. VanOtteren says.

What are the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke?

It’s not entirely clear. “Most of the studies on particulate matter comes from combustion sources like burning fossil fuels—that’s mostly what we know about the health effects,” Dr. Laumbach says. “Based on what we know, wildfire smoke has very similar health effects compared to combustion particles.”

Particulate matter from wildfires is “different in some ways chemically and physically” than particles from combustion sources like engines and power plants, Dr. Laumbach says. “But the assumption is that they have very similar health effects,” he adds.

How to reduce the impact of wildfire smoke exposure

The CDC recommends that you do the following when wildfire smoke exposure is high in your area:

  • Stay inside, and keep your windows and doors closed.

  • Limit outdoor exercise when it’s smoky.

  • Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, like frying foods, sweeping, vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.

  • Change your air conditioning settings to recirculate air instead of pulling it in from outside.

  • Use a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter in one or more rooms in your house.

  • Wear an N95 or similar mask when you go outside.

If you have an underlying health condition that puts you at risk for more serious complications, it’s especially important that you do your best to limit your exposure to wildfire smoke, Dr. Laumbach says.

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