Health Impacts of Wildfires

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September 12, 2020
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The numbers of wildfires in California continues to rise every year and these larger, more frequent and more intense fires are a growing public health problem.

Climate change has caused higher temperatures and drier soils which has led to earlier and longer wildfire and drought seasons; in recent years, California has been battling fires almost year-round

About Wildfire Smoke:
  • When wood and other organic materials burn in wildfires, it produces a mixture of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and dangerous gases (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds).
  • One of the main pollutants found in wildfire smoke is  particulate matter, PM 2.5, which is a mixture of tiny solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air, which can be inhaled deeply into the lungs
  • Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless gas that is found most commonly during the smoldering stages of the fire and when in close proximity to the fire. CO is mainly a risk to people who are near the smoldering areas

Health Impacts:

Even if you don’t live in an evacuation zone, smoke from the wildfires can still pose a serious health risk

  • Wildfire smoke can be extremely harmful to the lungs, especially for children, pregnant women, older adults and those with underlying health conditions like asthma, COPD, bronchitis, chronic disease or diabetes.
  • Smoke can be harmful even to people who are healthy
  • Exposure to PM 2.5 is associated with serious heart and lung health effects

Wildfire smoke can:
  • Make it harder for your lungs circulate oxygen
  • Irritate the respiratory system and cause an immune response
  • Cause increased risk for respiratory tract infections, like bronchitis
  • Worsen chronic lung and heart diseases
  • Trigger acute symptom like eye irritation, runny nose, sore throat, mild cough, phlegm production, wheezing, or headaches
  • Trigger more severe symptoms like shortness of breath, severe cough, dizziness, chest pain, or heart palpitations
  • Increase symptoms of underlying infections and conditions, especially in children and older people
  • Potentially have long-term health effects from repeated exposure to smoke (this data will take researchers years to collect)

How to Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke:
  • Listen to evacuation orders
  • If you live in the path of a wildfire,  make sure to keep up with the most current evacuation orders
  • Follow instructions of local officials
  • If you are having trouble breathing consider evacuating preemptively and call doctor for advice if symptoms worsen
  • Avoid unnecessary outdoor exposure and stay indoors as much as possible
  • Keep windows/doors closed
  • Turn on air conditioning (with recirculation options) and/or ventilation systems
  • Check air conditioning filters and replace them as needed
  • Portable HEPA filters work well for cleaning the air for individual rooms
  • MERV13 filters can be added to central ventilation systems
  • Make sure your specific air cleaner device does not generate ozone
  • Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it’s too warm to stay inside with windows closed- cooling centers, community centers, evacuation centers
  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible (do not add to indoor when smoke levels are high)
  • Clean dusty surfaces indoors with a damp cloth
  • Do not use anything that burns (candles, fireplaces, cigarettes)
  • Do not vacuum (stirs up particles in the home)
  • Reduce use of gas stoves as much as possible (avoid frying or broiling foods to avoid adding particles to the indoor air)
  • Check your local air quality reports and the US Air Quality Index
  • Pay attention to public health messages and local advisories
  • Wildfires add to the existing PM 2.5 in the air, raising the AQI . Air Quality Index (AQI) is a measure of the pollution in the air, ranging from zero to 500 and takes into account the amount of PM 2.5 (particulate matter under 2.5 microns) and ozone in the air, among other pollutants, find your AQI here 
  • Keep a supply of medicine and non-perishable foods
  • Avoid leaving pets outdoors
  • Avoid smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke
  • When driving, keep windows up and air conditioner on (use recirculation setting to limit intake of outdoor air)
  • Do not rely on dust masks/bandanas for protection
  • Paper and dust masks will not fully protect your lungs from smoke
  • An N95 mask, when properly fitted, can offer some protection

How to Prepare & Protect Yourself if You Have a Preexisting Lung Condition:

If you have asthma, COPD or other heart/lung conditions, they can be exacerbated by going outside and inhaling wildfire smoke.

  • Talk with your healthcare provider before fire season to make sure that you have a plan
  • Have a several day supply of nonperishable foods that do not require cooking (cooking, especially frying/boiling can add to indoor air pollution)
  • Consider buying an air cleaner before the start of fire season- specific air cleaners can help to reduce particle levels indoors
  • Have a supply of N-95 or P-100 masks on hand and learn how to use them correctly (properly fitted)
  • Asthma
  • Continue to regularly measure your peak flow
  • Make sure you are properly stocked with your prescribed medications
  • Make sure your asthma action plan is updated and readily available
  • Call doctor if symptoms worsen
  • COPD
  • Make sure you are properly stocked with your prescribed medications
  • Call your doctor if symptoms worsen


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