UC Davis webinar discusses affects, dangers of wildfire smoke
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — When the skies are covered in thick smoke it’s not only eerie and apocalyptic, but dangerous to your health.
UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center hosted a webinar on Thursday, Oct. 29, “Impacts of Wildfire Smoke on Human Health,” which featured Dr. Kent Pinkerton, a professor in the department of anatomy, physiology and cell biology, school of veterinary medicine, department of pediatrics and school of medicine at UC Davis.
Pinkerton says there is a concern for those who are essential workers and have to work outside, especially those in the agriculture industry. He says it’s best for everyone to stay inside when the air quality is poor because smoke not only affects older adults with underlying health conditions, but young healthy individuals. Animals can also be negatively affected from particles.
Burning vegetation, building materials and other objects create fine organic and inorganic particles that make up smoke. This summer the heavy smoke in the basin from the effects of the fires burning all over the west from Southern California to Washington.
“The number and severity of wildfires are increasing,” Pinkerton said.
Not only do particles harm the lungs but Pinkerton says that gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, dioxins and volatile carbons can also affect an individual’s health.
However, if you are not directly near the fire, particles are of the greatest concern.
Pinkerton says it’s important to stay informed about the air quality index, which measures the value of air quality. The AQI ranges from good (0-50), moderate (51-100), unhealthy for sensitive groups (101-150), unhealthy (151-300), very unhealthy (201-300), and hazardous (301-500). People who are at a substantially higher risk include those who work outdoors with lung disease, heart disease and diabetes along with older adults, children or pregnant women.
He said that smoke causes several different symptoms including coughing, shortness of breath, scratchy throat, headaches and irritated sinus which all sound like pretty ominous symptoms during these times. Other immediate symptoms include stinging eyes, running nose, phlegm, wheezing, fast heartbeat, tiredness and asthma attacks. In extreme cases, it can cause premature death.
Pinkerton says that while they have less information about cumulative exposure, “We are beginning to see an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations that are occurring [related to air quality].”
If you have smoke inhalation symptoms and they persist, Pinkerton suggests getting medical attention.
“Air with elevated quantities of fine particulate matter, such as smoke, has an overall negative health effect on everyone,” said Dr. Matthew Wonnacott, chief medical officer at Barton Health. “Poor air quality generally worsens underlying health conditions, especially for those with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.”
While older adults, pregnant women, children and individuals with pre-existing heart and respiratory conditions are most at risk for getting sick from wildfire smoke, young healthy individuals are also at risk.
Nancy Williams, El Dorado County health officer, said that the more exposure someone has to smoke, the more damage that can occur to the lungs and all people should take precautions.
“People with COPD, asthma or an active infection may find themselves in a worse situation,” Williams said. “It’s important to protect ourselves.”
Not only is the smoke causing physical symptoms, but Wonnacott says that it could potentially affect mental health as well.
“Smoke may increase the development or progression of many mental health disorders, including anxiety, depressed mood, bipolar disorder, and psychosis,” he said.
While it’s unknown if smoke causes more susceptibility to contracting COVID-19, Wonnacott says, “Air pollution and smoke cause an inflammatory response in the body’s airway, and COVID-19 has been shown to increase inflammation as well.”
According to the Center for Disease Control, wildfire smoke can make the body more prone to lung infections due to irritation and inflammation of the lungs while also affecting the body’s immune system. Lung infections include SARS-CoV-2 which is the same virus that causes COVID-19.
“While it’s unknown if air quality increases susceptibility to getting COVID, we know patient health outcomes worsened by the virus can be impacted by other respiratory stressors such as poor air quality,” Wonnacott said.
Not only is poor air quality bad for humans, but pets as well.
Neil Powell, Blue Lake Animal Care Center veterinarian, says that smoke definitely affects pets.
“I definitely recommend pets, especially older or sensitive pets, or those with underlying respiratory conditions, avoid being outside excessively during high smoke/ash conditions,” Powell said.
He said that smoke can cause nasal congestion, red irritated eyes and a cough in pets.
“The smoke and ash can irritate mucous membranes. Encouraging plenty of water consumption can help moisten the tissue and minimize irritation,” said Powell. “I also think keeping their face clean from settled smoke/ash can be beneficial.”
He also said that when there is smoke present having air purifiers and giving your dog a regular bath can also help.
To stay safe when the skies are filled in a cloud of smoke, health officials recommend following local advisories and staying indoors with windows and doors shut when told to do so.
Pinkerton also suggests getting a N95 mask which provides the minimum protection for wildfire particles and some gases.
“They can block 98-99% of the particles in the air,” he said.
He stressed the importance of using the masks correctly and making sure they fit properly.
Another recommendation is to set air conditioners in the home and car to recirculation mode when air quality is bad.
“Avoiding going outdoors in smoky conditions or poor air quality lessens one’s health risks; however, if you do leave your home, following COVID-19 protocols and wearing a face mask also helps decrease the level of inhaled particulates and lessens the smoke’s impact on the respiratory system or other medical conditions,” Wannacott said.
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