Wildfire Smoke Poses Health Risks
October 28, 2013

Smoke From Wildfires Can Cause Health Problems, Even In Unaffected States

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The increasing number of wildfires occurring throughout the US in recent summers has been sending carbon monoxide and other toxins into the atmosphere, causing respiratory issues among people living far from the affected areas, scientists with an environmental group warned late last week.

According to Wendy Koch of USA Today, more than 200 million Americans (or two-thirds of the country’s population) lived in regions that had been affected by smoke-causing wildfires in 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a report released on Thursday.

The NRDC analysis, which showed how those fires impacted each of the 50 US states two years ago (the most recent data currently available), found that medium- to high-density smoke lasting at least 12 days covered nearly 50 times the area directly harmed by the fires themselves, Koch said.

The agency found that those emissions are likely to cause widespread health problems.

“It affects a much wider area of the United States than people realize,” study author and NRDC senior scientist Kim Knowlton told USA Today. She explained that the smoke contains fine-particle air pollution and is capable of drifting hundreds of miles away. Because of those pollutants, the smoke is capable of causing asthma attacks and pneumonia, as well as worsening chronic lung and heart conditions.

According to Reuters reporter Laura Zuckerman, the NRDC data, which is based on government satellite images of smoke plumes, found that 32 states, primarily in the western half of the country, were affected by the smoke. Eight of those states experienced medium- to high-density levels of smoke for a period of at least one week, despite the fact that no wildfires occurred directly within their borders.

“Even if you don't live near wildfires, your health may be threatened by smoke,” Knowlton told reporters during an October 24 telephone press conference. Patrick Kinney, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, told Zuckerman that there are hundreds of toxins and tiny particles in wildlife smoke that can become lodged in the lungs, worsening respiratory conditions and increasing the risk of premature death due to heart and lung problems.

“The NRDC report says that while more states are trying to warn residents of the health risks posed by wildfires, more monitoring stations are needed,” Koch said. “If air quality reports are poor or it looks smoky outside, the group recommends people stay indoors, keep windows closed and avoid using fireplaces or other items that create smoke.”