Wildfires in the United States and Canada, fueled by record heat and drought, could seriously impact the health of millions.
Smoke from wildfires in several Canadian provinces, including Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, has led to air quality alerts in several Midwestern, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states. Also, the fires in Michigan and New Jersey they created thick fog and thick smoke.
Inhaling toxic smoke and ash from fires could cause damage to the body, including the lungs and heart, and even weaken our immune systems, experts said.
“The smoke from the fires itself is quite a complex mixture and is made up of fine particles and a number of other gases, which are toxic, mainly due to the fact that fires burn everything more toxic than house fires because everything has been burned,” said Dr. Kimberly Humphrey, a climate change and human health fellow at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health and Global Environment, told ABC News.
The fine particulate matter known as PM2.5, which is 30 times smaller in diameter than a human hair, is of particular concern.
Because these particles are too small to be seen with the naked eye, they can easily enter the nose and throat and can travel as far as the lungs, with some of the smaller particles also circulating in the bloodstream, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The main culprit here is these fine particles,” Dr. Vijay Limaye, a climate and health scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, told ABC News. “That size is really important because it can penetrate really deep and wreak havoc on the body.”
PM2.5 can cause both short-term health effects, even for healthy people, including eye, nose and throat irritation; cough, sneeze; and shortness of breath and long-term effects such as worsening conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
This is of particular concern for vulnerable groups including children, pregnant women, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions.
“Lower socioeconomic neighborhoods are also at higher risk,” Humphrey said. “Often they don’t have the possibility for financial, predominantly, and even social reasons to get away from the smoke from fires, they may not be able to shelter inside, they may not be able to afford the equipment to protect their lungs from the Smoke.”
Not all PM2.5 particles are created equal. A California study in 2021 found that wildfires can be up to 10 times more harmful than the same type of air pollution from burning activity.
Exposure to smoke can cause lung inflammation and may make it more difficult to remove inhaled foreign materials and bacteria, potentially increasing your susceptibility to respiratory infections, including COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Depending on the duration and amount of exposure, prolonged lung inflammation could cause lung function impairment that lasts long after the fire has ended.
Additionally, studies have shown a link between poor air quality, caused by these fires, and cardiovascular disease, including strokes, heart attacks, heart failure and atrial fibrillation.
Due to climate change, not only will there be more record-breaking fires, but also more people at risk of inhaling toxic smoke, experts said.
“It is clear that the climate change problem is essentially creating conditions that make the fire problem and the smoke problem worse,” Limaye said. “So, we’re talking about hotter days, longer bushfires, seasons, drier conditions, spring snowmelt that, essentially, bring more bushfire fuel into play sooner — all these types of factors converging.”
He added: “And I think it’s reasonable to expect smoke from wildfires to grow as a public health concern over the next few years.”
Humphrey recommends people be aware of local air quality and, if it reaches unhealthy levels, wear a mask, ideally an N95.
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