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The Health Impacts of Wildfire

Not only do wildfires have a significant impact on property and the livelihoods of the affected people, they pose a significant impact on both the short and long-term health of the people. One would only assume that only those that are in close proximity of the fire will bear the effects of it. However, in 2020, a study done by Stanford estimates that wildfire smoke is likely to have been responsible for up to 15,000 U.S. deaths in a year.

Wildfire smoke primarily contains carbon dioxide and monoxide, water vapour, particulate matter, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. The composition of wildfire smoke depends on what is being burned, whether it may be a specific type of tree or vegetation, different compounds may be produced when burned due to factors, such as varying amounts of cellulose, oils and resins. The effects of wildfire smoke can be further amplified by the surrounding environment, mixing and interacting with other gases and particles as it spreads.

Figure 1: Black Carbon Column Mass Density, source: NASA

What is behind all these adverse health effects?

PM2.5 is the main harmful byproduct of wildfires, being no larger than 2.5 microns in diameter, this makes it easy for these particulates to enter both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Once it has entered the lung, it irritates and corrodes the alveolar wall, leading to the potential impairment of lung functions. An immune attack may also be triggered by the presence of PM2.5, making the body vulnerable to other potential diseases. A study was done in Reno, Nevada in 2020 has linked the exposure to wildfire smoke and an 18-percent increase in Covid-19 cases.

What are potential safety measures to minimise the risk of adverse health effects caused by wildfire smoke?

  1. Pay attention to “air quality indexes” by local authorities and remain indoors if air quality levels are too low.
  2. If it is unavoidable to go outside, N95 masks fitted correctly can be an effective barrier against particulate matters like PM2.5
  3. Ensure the elderly or those vulnerable with health conditions such as asthma, are looked after with adequate medications such as inhalers
  4. Keep indoor air as clean as possible:
    • Keep windows and doors closed
    • Use air filters, if accessible those with HEPA filters
    • Adjust air conditioning or ventilation systems to ensure that smoke is kept out
    • Designate a “clean room” if its not feasible to maintain the air quality in the whole home
By CK Yu

CK Yu is currently a Biomedical Science undergraduate student, who is also interested in technology and how it can be used to solve problems, whether it may be in the medical field or for the better of the world.

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