Unhealthy air conditions due to wildfires may cause long-term health effects

Unhealthy air conditions due to wildfires may cause long-term health effects

Photo Credits: Smoke from numerous wildfires in Northern California hangs in the air over the Tercero area of the UC Davis campus on September 9, 2020.(Quinn Spooner / Aggie)

Climate crisis induces hazardous air quality across California

As wildfires ravage California, decimating homes and habitats, smoke blankets the state. This past month, multiple counties—including Solano and Yolo Counties—sent out alerts of unhealthy air quality. As the Air Quality Index (AQI) rose above 200, it became dangerous for everyone, not just those in sensitive groups, to go outside. 

Exposure to poor air quality can have serious health consequences. Short term effects include, but are not limited to: asthma-like symptoms like eye irritation, runny nose, chest pain, sneezing, sore throat, coughing and shortness of breath, according to Nicholas Kenyon, a professor and chief of the division of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine.

While scientists continue to study the exact consequences of smoke inhalation, the short-term effects of California’s multiple acute episodes of poor air quality may have negative long-term impacts on public health, according to Kenyon.

“We will outlive these short-term events for a few days a year,” Kenyon said. “But if you’re growing up in the Davis area and we have a month of exposure to this wildfire smoke while your lungs are developing, it’s very possible that it affects you long term.”

Smoke inhalation provokes especially negative impacts on individuals with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Elderly people, children and pregnant women are also at high risk. These individuals can suffer from asthma attacks, acute exacerbations of their underlying illness, heart attacks or strokes, according to Kent Pinkerton, a professor in the department of anatomy, physiology and cell biology at the school of veterinary medicine and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the school of medicine. 

“Our greatest concerns are for specific susceptible groups and certain ages,” Pinkerton said. “Exposure of particles and gases could exacerbate or enhance [their] conditions.”

Helene Margolis, an associate adjunct professor in the department of internal medicine at the school of medicine, said her greatest concern is the impact of poor air quality on pregnant individuals. If these people endure prolonged exposure to smoke late in their pregnancy, they can undergo preterm birth.

Air pollution from wildfires includes both gases and particles of buried materials. Exposure to particulate matter that is smaller than 2.5 microns (PM 2.5) has caused the most fatalities, according to Anthony Wexler, a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Air Quality Research Center. These small particles can easily enter the deepest parts of the respiratory tract—the alveoli—where gas exchange occurs. 

This smoke primarily contains combusted vegetative material; however, more dangerous materials like rubbers, plastics and metals are burning too, since these wildfires have swept through developed land.

“The basic composition is similar to smoking,” Wexler said. “The concentrations are not as high, but [we are] doing it 24/7, which will have long term consequences.”

During unhealthy air conditions, the best way to protect oneself is to remain indoors. If one must go outside, Kenyon does not recommend exercising; raising one’s respiratory rate increases the intake of poor quality air into their lungs. As of Sep. 20, the air quality had improved to moderate conditions, but as California’s fire season continues through October, it is possible for the AQI to rise again.

During unhealthy conditions, individuals who leave their homes should wear N95 masks which provide a tight seal against the nose and mouth as well as proper filtration. N95 masks—which also prevent the spread of COVID-19 droplets—prevent 95-99% of particles from penetrating the mask, according to Pinkerton. Since the emergence of COVID-19, however, N95 masks have not been readily available.

“Not all the coverings we are using right now for COVID-19 would necessarily be very effective in protecting from smoke or bad air quality,” Pinkerton said. “You really need protection and to not use a facial cloth mask, which only protects from 60% of particles in the air at best.” 

Earlier this summer, reducing the spread of COVID-19 prompted many individuals to spend much time outdoors, however, the widespread wildfires have presented a further complication towards attempting to safely escape one’s home. 

“It’s amazing how resilient people are in terms of managing what’s going on,” Kenyon said. “There are obviously some discrepancies in terms of recommendations that we’ve been facing with both wildfires and COVID …. we’re telling people to go outdoors for COVID to get out of closed environments, but of course, with the wildfires trying to stay indoors.”

While more research needs to be conducted before conclusions are drawn, scientists are speculating that exposure to wildfire smoke increases one’s susceptibility to infections, according to Margolis. 

“One of our biggest concerns is that [exposure to] air pollution from the wildfire smoke potentially … increases susceptibility to the virus,” Margolis said.

A correlation of this type has been seen with influenza and a similar could be witnessed with COVID-19, according to Kenyon. 

Additionally, there is a concern that if an individual contracts COVID-19 after being exposed to air pollution, the disease is more severe, according to Margolis. 

“It’s a pretty scary picture in terms of health,” Margolis said.

California will continue to suffer from wildfires and poor air quality as the climate crisis becomes more severe. In order to combat this issue, people need to decrease their dependence on fossil fuels, according to Wexler. 

“We have to vote for people who are going to take this seriously and who are going to help us transition to renewable energy sources,” Wexler said. 

Margolis hopes that the youth who grow up experiencing wildfires and poor air quality will be the ones to spark change—their health and safety depend on it. 

“We know not everyone has lived up to the responsibility of taking care of this planet and keeping it safe, but I think more and more people are becoming aware,” Margolis said. “Don’t give up. Join forces. You have an extraordinary voice and … you are powerful.”

Written by: Margo Rosenbaum — science@theaggie.org