How Wildfires Affect Your Health

Plus four more of the day’s top stories

Aug 21, 2015
Outside Magazine
How Wildfires Affect Your Health

On Thursday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) put a wildfire smoke health advisory into effect for west-central and northwest Colorado.    Zach Dischner / Flickr

On Thursday, Colorado public health officials issued a temporary wildfire smoke health advisory for the west-central and northwest parts of the state, from 10 a.m. MDT on Thursday until 9 a.m. MDT on Friday. But Colorado isn’t the only state at risk. Wildfires in states like Idaho, California, and Oregon are also compromising air quality in surrounding states, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) media officer Richard Mylott told Outside

So far, this year’s wildfire season has touched 7.1 million acres, making it the earliest in the season that so much land has burned, according to the Washington PostDrought is one of the main contributors to wildfires and a large reason millions of acres have burned in the West this summer. Along with more land burning come more health risks. Here’s what you need to know and how to protect yourself:

How Wildfire Smoke Affects Your Health
A 2011 paper connected 69 premature deaths, more than 750 cases of hospitalization, and over 1,400 emergency room visits to the 2003 wildfires in Southern California. Researchers also estimated that more than 20 million people were exposed to polluted air from the fires. (Another paper estimated the health cost of each exposed person at $9.50 per day.) Smoke is especially dangerous to those with preexisting health conditions—including asthma, heart disease, bronchitis, or emphysema—according to the American Lung Association.

How to Stay Safe from Wildfire Smoke
Western states typically have pretty strong programs in place to monitor and forecast smoke conditions and get the word out about health precautions, says Mylott. “Wildfire events can send smoke across large areas. So it’s important to pay attention to state and local health advisories and take steps to limit exposure.”

Here are five steps to protect yourself:

  1. The EPA calculates the amount of air pollution and ranks it from good to hazardous. Keep an eye on this map, which gives real-time updates on the air quality levels across the United States.
  2. When driving near wildfires, the American Lung Association recommends rolling up your windows and closing your car’s air vents to minimize contact with air pollution.
  3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests avoiding pollution inside your home as much as possible by not vacuuming (which can stir up pollution particles), lighting candles, using fireplaces, or cooking on gas stoves. 
  4. Breathing in particle pollution is a major health concern. Try to limit your physical activity until the particulate concentrations subside, says Mylott.
  5. Ditch the dust mask, which isn’t going to help much. Smoke is composed not only of pollution particles but also a mixture of gases—toxic carbon monoxide among them—so the best way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is to get away from it.

In Other News

  • Rock climbers Sasha DiGiulian and Carlo Traversi are climbing La Paciencia, a 3,000-foot route on the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland, on Friday. The unfinished route, which has been attempted by alpinists Ueli Steck, Stephan Siegrist, and Raul Bayard, includes 23 pitches and is graded a 5.13b.
  • The Department of Defense announced on Tuesday that the military will help fight U.S. wildfires. This is the first time since 2006 that soldiers have helped extinguish wildfires. The military is starting with 200 soldiers from Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
  • Primal Quest, a 400-mile adventure race, began Thursday near Lake Tahoe in California. Participants run, climb, paddle, and mountain bike to compete for a $100,000 prize.
  • Swarms of bugs have infested Burning Man. They’re likely stink bugs with bodies filled with mustard oil. When crushed, the bugs can cause burning and welts to human skin exposed to the oil.
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