The Potentially Long-Term and Fatal Consequences of Wildfire Smoke

The Potentially Long-Term and Fatal Consequences of Wildfire Smoke
A haze over the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument on the National Mall as smoke from wildfires in Canada cause hazy conditions in Washington on June 7, 2023. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Vance Voetberg

This first week of June, a dense, smoky haze blanketed the skies of the Northeast due to wildfires in Canada. The gray skyline, reminiscent of scenes from Star Wars, has raised concerns among medical professionals because poor air quality causes a cascade of health complications.

Health experts warn individuals with asthma or respiratory issues to exercise extreme caution. They also emphasize the importance for everyone, regardless of health status, to avoid densely polluted areas if possible.

Though some people dismiss the seriousness of wildfire smoke’s impact on physical health, extensive research indicates that wildfire pollution poses serious health risks and can be potentially fatal.

Even Short-Term Exposure Increases Mortality Risk

The tiny particulates we inhale from wildfire pollution can penetrate lung tissue and potentially enter the bloodstream, allowing it to affect our vital organs.
A team of Australian researchers conducted a study published in The Lancet's Planetary Health journal to investigate the impact of wildfire smoke on human health. Examining 749 locations worldwide, they discovered that a short-term increase in wildfire-related particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers raises mortality risk.
“The effects lasted for three days,” one of the study’s authors Dr. Yuming Guo, professor of global environmental health and biostatistics at Australia’s Monash University, told The Epoch Times. “For example, today's wildfire-related PM2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 micrometers) can increase the risks of mortality today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow,” he added.

The study linked wildfire pollution to 33,510 deaths from respiratory and heart attacks, yet it acknowledges that this figure could be underestimated as it did not include countries with a significant number of wildfires.

Another study led by Guo and his team in Brazil revealed that short-term exposure to wildfire pollution disproportionately affects the most vulnerable groups: individuals over 80 and children under 9.
“The evidence is clear that short-term exposure to wildfire smoke is harmful to human health,” Guo said, noting that short-term exposure can lead to increased risks of respiratory, cardiovascular, and mental health issues and adverse maternal health and birth outcomes.

Nice, Big Breaths of … Chemicals?

Manmade chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers pose significant health risks when inhaled from wildfire smoke, according to Josuha Fu, who holds a doctorate in civil engineering and is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee.

“Pollution from power plants and vehicles, pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals in waste can all make their way into trees and plants," Fu told The Epoch Times. "When those trees and plants burn, chemicals are released, along with health-harming particulate matter in the smoke, gas, and ash,” he added.

These chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde, nitrogen cyanide, and mercury, have been linked to cancer and Parkinson's disease.
Individuals with asthma are particularly vulnerable to severe health complications from wildfire pollution. Asthma, being an inflammatory lung condition, is exacerbated by the inflammatory effects of wildfire pollution, which affects everyone by promoting inflammation in the respiratory system.

Lower-Income Communities Hit Harder

Fu emphasized that “there is a huge impact on lower-income communities because they do not have highly efficient air conditioning and air filter unit(s) at home.”
Lower-income communities often face challenges in accessing quality health care, which can contribute to a disproportionate impact of various illnesses on these families and individuals. Asthma is one such condition that tends to affect lower-income communities more prominently.
Low-income households may face challenges maintaining good indoor air quality due to inadequate ventilation, mold or dampness, and allergens like dust mites or cockroaches. These indoor air pollutants can worsen asthma symptoms and act as triggers.

How to Minimize Health Risks

Experts Fu and Guo provided the following five-step guideline for reducing wildfire pollution exposure.
  1. Keep informed by tracking air quality reports and staying updated on wildfires and wildfire smoke status. You can follow the air quality index of your region here.
  2. Reduce outdoor activities.
  3. Stay indoors and use air purifiers or air conditioning with a high-efficiency particulate filter. HEPA air purifiers can effectively filter out PM2.5 particles, reducing pollution levels within your home or bedroom.
  4. If you go outside, use masks, particularly N95 or P100 respirator masks.
  5. Make a plan for evacuation if necessary. For instance, if the forecast indicates that the smoke is expected to persist for an extended period, have a plan to get away for a while, if possible.

Furthermore, the following herbs and supplements have demonstrated their potential in promoting lung and respiratory health through the provision of diverse anti-inflammatory compounds:

  • N-acetylcysteine (NAC) for its antioxidant effects
  • Schisandra for its anti-inflammatory properties
  • Yarrow for its antiviral properties
  • Licorice for its anti-inflammatory properties
  • Mullein for its expectorant properties
  • Oregano oil for the antioxidant properties of some of its compounds
Vance Voetberg is a journalist for The Epoch Times based in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a B.S. in journalism and aims to present truthful, inspiring health-related news. He is the founder of the nutrition blog “Running On Butter.”