Smoke from more than 430 active wildfires in Canada billowed south last week and led to the worst pollution the New York and Washington regions have ever experienced. More than 75 million people in the eastern United States were on air quality alerts as smoke from wildfires shrouded major cities. Some flights have been grounded, events have been canceled and millions of people have breathed unhealthy air.
Much of the smoke has cleared, but people still have questions. Should we worry about air quality? What are the short-term effects of inhaling fire smoke? Are there any long-term consequences? And how can people prepare for future fires, which, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, will be even more frequent and more severe in the future?
To walk us through these questions, I spoke with CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health care policy and management at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.
CNN: How do people know if they are safe from wildfire smoke?
Dr. Leana Wen: The federal government has an excellent website, airnow.gov, where you can enter your city or zip code and see what the current air quality is in your area.
Just as the weather forecast in your area can change, so can the air quality. As we have seen from wildfire smoke spread in Canada, events hundreds of kilometers away can lead to pollution in another area. You can use this website to monitor your air quality and, if necessary, adjust your plans and add precautions accordingly.
CNN: They are are there people who should still be concerned about air quality because of the wildfires in Canada?
Wen: It depends on the air quality in their area and the underlying medical circumstances. The air quality in many parts of the country has improved a lot, returning almost to normal, while other areas still have unhealthy levels of pollution.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Record-breaking smog from smoke from wildfires in Canada partially obscures the United States Capitol in Washington on June 8. People with chronic lung and heart conditions should continue to monitor their air quality, said CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen.
People most at risk during low-quality days are young children, the elderly, pregnant people, and people with underlying medical conditions, particularly chronic lung and heart conditions. Those folks should be cautious, carefully monitoring the air quality in their area on a regular basis. If there are warnings and alerts, refrain from strenuous exercise, stay indoors when possible, and use air purifiers in indoor areas.
CNN: What are the short-term health effects of inhaling smoke from wildfires?
Wen: During last weeks event, many people may have experienced adverse effects, such as throat irritation, hoarseness and cough. Some may have had worsening of their underlying asthma, bronchitis, COPD, which is short for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or other respiratory conditions. These are most pronounced in the first few days following exposure to smoke. Studies have shown that exposure to wildfire smoke leads to increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses in children and the elderly.
Studies have also shown a more striking link, which is the association between wildfire smoke exposure and serious cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and cardiac arrest. And there is research that has linked wildfire smoke exposure events to an increase in flu months later, suggesting there may be delayed effects.
Many of these effects are thought to be due to microscopic particles called particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. These pollutants can induce inflammation and a stress response in the body, which can worsen existing medical conditions.
CNN: If people were exposed to poor air quality for a few days, should they worry about the long-term consequences?
Wen: There are people who live in parts of the world where exposure to dangerous amounts of particulate matter and other pollutants is a daily reality. These populations are at risk of long-term consequences. Research has linked this type of chronic exposure to an increase in certain types of cancer, for example, and reduced lung capacity.
For most people, a one-time exposure event probably won’t cause any major lasting problems. The concern is that these may not be one-off events in the future. Some people already live in wildfire prone areas and may be exposed to fire events several times a year. And, as we’ve seen, fires hundreds of kilometers away can cause such significant effects on air quality. With climate change, experts predict more frequent fires, which can lead to more days of dangerous air quality for all of us.
CNN: How can people prepare for future wildfires?
Wen: Invest in air purifiers for your home. Bad outdoor air leads to bad indoor air. Air purifiers can help remove smoke and those microscopic particles that are harmful to your health.
Workplaces and schools can do this too and look to upgrade their ventilation system. Improving ventilation will also reduce virus transmission, including the spread of influenza and Covid-19.
People should optimize their medical health as much as possible. Those with lung disease in particular should ensure they have an ample supply of inhalers and consult their doctors about whether use should be increased during times of poorer air quality.
Everyone should have a travel bag, a bag of emergency supplies to take along when an emergency occurs. This includes water, non-perishable food, prescription drugs, flashlights, first aid kits, and more.
Finally, we must understand the intimate link between the environment and health and work to prevent environmental hazards that can lead to many significant health problems now and in the future.
Sign up for CNN’s Life, But Greener newsletter. Our limited series of newsletters guides you on how to minimize your personal role in the climate crisis and reduce your eco-anxiety.
#Wildfire #smoke #people #concerned #health #effects #Medical #Analyst #Explains #Cnn