Wild­fire smoke is be­com­ing a na­tion­wide health threat

The State (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY RICHARD E. PELTIER Richard E. Peltier is As­so­ciate Pro­fes­sor of En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Sciences, Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts.

The im­pacts of re­cent for­est fires in Cal­i­for­nia reach well be­yond the burned ar­eas. Smoke from the Camp Fire cre­ated haz­ardous air qual­ity con­di­tions in San Fran­cisco, more than 170 miles to the south­west – but it didn’t stop there. Cross-coun­try winds car­ried it across the United States, cre­at­ing hazy con­di­tions in lo­ca­tions as far east as Philadel­phia.

As an air pol­lu­tion ex­po­sure sci­en­tist, I worry about the ex­treme lev­els of air pol­lu­tion that rise from these fires and af­fect many peo­ple across great dis­tances. They can cre­ate un­healthy con­di­tions in far-flung lo­ca­tions where res­i­dents prob­a­bly never think about wild­fires. But since ma­jor wild­fires are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon, I be­lieve it is im­por­tant for all Amer­i­cans to know some ba­sics about smoke haz­ards.

For­est fires do not dis­crim­i­nate about what they burn. Along with woody ma­te­ri­als from forests and homes, they con­sume homes’ con­tents, which may con­tain plas­tics, petroleum prod­ucts, chem­i­cals and met­als. This pro­duces thick plumes of smoke that con­tains very large quan­ti­ties of par­ti­cles and gases. Many of these air­borne chem­i­cals are known to be quite toxic to hu­mans.

Smoke plumes travel great dis­tances, af­fect­ing com­mu­ni­ties hun­dreds of miles away. Winds tend to move from west to east across North Amer­ica and carry these pol­lu­tants with them. Some­times, de­pend­ing on lo­cal weather con­di­tions, the pol­lu­tants can be lifted up to high al­ti­tudes where wind speeds are faster and trans­ported very quickly across the coun­try. The pol­lu­tants can then de­scend back to the ground in lo­ca­tions far away from the fires, af­fect­ing ev­ery­one in their path.

Rel­a­tively few stud­ies have an­a­lyzed broad pub­lic health im­pacts from wood smoke. Agen­cies such as the Na­tional In­sti­tute of En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Sciences are fund­ing some re­search on this is­sue, but it can take a long time to pro­duce con­vinc­ing sci­ence, es­pe­cially on sub­jects that are so un­pre­dictable.

We do know that this kind of smoke con­tains chem­i­cals that are toxic, in­clud­ing poly­cyclic aro­matic hy­dro­car­bons, heavy met­als, black car­bon (soot), acids and ox­i­diz­ing com­pounds. Ex­po­sure to some of these com­pounds can lead to lung ir­ri­ta­tion, cancer, hy­per­ten­sion, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and even death. We know this be­cause re­searchers have stud­ied smoke ex­po­sure in fire­fight­ers for many years, and it’s likely that the risks also ap­ply to peo­ple who aren’t fire­fight­ers.

Re­search has shown that many health ef­fects from air pol­lu­tion oc­cur well af­ter ex­po­sure has oc­curred. Some­times these prob­lems oc­cur within a few hours, but in other cases it can be days or weeks later. This means that peo­ple may not feel the im­pacts of smoke in­hala­tion un­til well af­ter the smoke clears.

The most ef­fec­tive strat­egy is to limit ex­po­sure to poor-qual­ity air through steps such as avoid­ing the out­doors when pos­si­ble, clos­ing win­dows and doors, and run­ning cen­tral heat or air con­di­tion­ing sys­tems, which for the most part re­cir­cu­late in­door air. For out­door pro­tec­tion, the best op­tion is an N95 face­mask, which is de­signed to fit snugly and fil­ter out very small par­ti­cles. In­ex­pen­sive cloth masks do not pro­vide ef­fec­tive pro­tec­tion.

How­ever, it can be dif­fi­cult to achieve a good fit with N95 masks, and these masks are not very ef­fec­tive at re­mov­ing toxic gases from smoke, which eas­ily pass through the fil­ter ma­te­rial. Avoid­ing ex­po­sure in the first place is the best strat­egy.

Com­mu­ni­ties that are fre­quently ex­posed to wild­fire smoke should con­sider cre­at­ing lo­ca­tions where they can pro­vide high-qual­ity air fil­tra­tion, such as a school or com­mu­nity cen­ter. These sites could of­fer safer con­di­tions for peo­ple who are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to air pol­lu­tion, such as chil­dren, the el­derly and peo­ple with res­pi­ra­tory ail­ments, in the same way that cities set up heat­ing and cool­ing cen­ters dur­ing ex­treme weather con­di­tions.

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