Smoke from wildfires is covering much of the United States and Canada, according to NOAA satellite data. While the fire in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada is in the news, the red dots on the photo above show all the fires currently burning. Wildfire smoke, even at low concentrations, can be a health hazard.
The Associated Press, on May 7, reported that smoke from the Fort McMurray fire is affecting air quality from Malta to Billings in Montana. Those cities are 1,505 km to 1,734 km south of where the fire is burning.
WOWT, in Omaha, Nebraska, reported smoke from both Minnesota and Canada in its area. “… visibility may be reduced to two to three miles and the smoke will likely contribute to a decline in air quality.”
Airway size is an indicator of susceptibility to signs and symptoms caused by inhaling wildfire smoke. Children and infants will be at greatest risk.
Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke
Exposure to wildfire smoke was associated with increased eye and respiratory symptoms, medication use, and physician visits.
The majority of studies found that wildfire smoke was associated with increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Children, the elderly and those with underlying chronic diseases appear to be susceptible.
Accounting for confounding factors such as seasonality and fluctuation of daily mortality levels, we identify 133 excess cardiorespiratory-related deaths caused by wildfire-smoke exposure. The mean estimated total mortality-related cost associated with the 2003 southern California wildfire event is approximately one billion U.S. dollars.
People who have heart or lung diseases, like congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including emphysema), or asthma, are at higher risk from wildfire smoke. In general, people with these conditions are at higher risk of having health problems than people without the conditions.
Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases.
Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke. Children’s airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. In addition, children often spend more time outdoors engaged in activity and play.
Hazards of Soot and Smoke Damage
It is important to note that soot is not simply a form of dirt that
needs to be removed from an article. Soot can be a respiratory or
skin irritant, and there may be chemicals or metals riding on the
soot particles that are small enough to enter into your lungs. Be
respectful of what chemical constituents can be represented in
fire soot and take the time to wear personal protective gear.
Chronic exposure can lead to allergies, bronchitis, and emphysema, while acute exposure can cause impaired judgment, eye and respiratory irritation, and even death. In addition, some gases commonly released in burning, such as methane, and ethylene, have been shown to be carcinogenic in tests on laboratory animals.
How smoke may affect your health depends on a number of variables such as how long you were exposed, your age and current state of health, the type of smoke you are inhaling, and the concentration of the smoke in the air etc. People who are exercising or doing an activity that causes them to breathe more rapidly and deeply are at a higher risk for health issues. Children, elderly people, others with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema are also at a higher risk since they are more susceptible to the harmful effects of smoke inhalation. Long term exposure to air with particles has been associated with increases in risks for cancer, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease. Short term exposure typically only causes throat, eyes and nose irritation.
Blowing ash from fire affected areas can be hazardous.Blowing ash can be irritating to the skin, nose, throat and lungs and may cause coughing. Ash can be especially hazardous for young children, the elderly, individuals with heart conditions and individuals with respiratory ailments such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.