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What Are The Health Effects Of The Smoke From Wildfires?


The pictures look like something out of a science fiction movie - orange skies, thick smoke, walls of flame. Wildfires burning along the West Coast have killed at least two dozen people and displaced thousands. The smoke from those fires is blanketing tens of millions. And as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, the health effects of that exposure are not entirely understood.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: How bad is the air in western Oregon? Well, just ask.

EYAS DEBUQI: It just feels like, you know, an apocalypse and the world is ending.

ABBI KINZINGER: It's just settling in the streets. You can see it as a fog.

LANESHA COLLINS: Just looking out the window, waking up and it's, like, yellow outside.

CLARK BRINKMAN: You cough and you wheeze and your eyes burn.

ROTT: Eyas Debuqi, LaNesha Collins, Abbi Kinzinger and Clark Brinkman have all been breathing the worst air in the world over the last few days, hazardous air that they're now sharing with not just their West Coast neighbors but even with folks as far east as Montana. Higher level smoke has reached the Midwest.

KARTHIK MAHADEVAN: These are situations we've never had to deal with before.

ROTT: Dr. Karthik Mahadevan is a pulmonologist in Springfield, Ore., near one of the largest fires burning in the state.

MAHADEVAN: We've had a lot of calls to our clinic with patients with respiratory illnesses with increasing shortness of breath, and we're worried that we're going to see more hospitalizations over the next few days if this continues.

ROTT: The link between wildfire smoke and acute health effects like Mahadevan just described is well documented. When the smoke is thick, ambulance dispatches rise, hospital visits increase, more people experience respiratory or cardiac emergencies. Recent research even indicates it might lead to an increased risk of getting COVID-19. What's less clear, though, is what happens to a person after the smoke clears. Tony Ward is professor of community and health sciences at the University of Montana.

TONY WARD: What are the long-term health effects of smoke? And I think that's one thing that is not really well known.

ROTT: That is something you hear from just about everyone who studies wildfire smoke. There's just not enough data to know what the long-term health impacts might be. A study by some of Ward's colleagues looking at a western Montana town that was inundated with smoke for 50 days in 2017 found that residents' lung functions were even worse a year after the smoke cleared. But follow-ups have been derailed by the pandemic. In California where people are exposed to smoke year after year, researchers are looking at the effects of that on pregnant women and infants.

SHERYL MAGZAMEN: And the paradigm's changing where it's not this one-time disaster for many communities in the mountain west (ph). It's actually chronic disasters that occur every two to three years.

ROTT: Dr. Sheryl Magzamen is an assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University.

MAGZAMEN: So from a health effects standpoint, we are, I believe, way behind where we should be in terms of understanding, getting those high doses almost biannually at this point.

ROTT: Especially, she says, because those high doses are going to continue. Climate change is making extreme fire events more common. More people are living in western landscapes where they can be exposed. And there's a growing understanding that more prescribed fire is going to be needed in the West to reduce the risk of catastrophic blazes. Here's Colleen Reid who studies smoke at the University of Colorado Boulder.

COLLEEN REID: So that would be sort of maybe a constant but lower level of air pollution compared to these periodic but very high levels of air pollution. Some analysis of the health impacts of that trade-off should be investigated.

ROTT: Because, she says, there is no situation where smoke is not a part of the Western landscape. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Oregon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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