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Health Effects of Smoke Exposure Due to Wildland Fires

Smoke may smell good, but it's not good for you

While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, it’s still a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. And when smoke is heavy, such as can occur in close proximity to a wildfire, it’s bad for everyone.

Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.

While smoke from wildland fires is a recognized public health threat, there are very few studies that examine the specific role of the different components of smoke on disease and the severity of disease when people are exposed, says EPA’s Dr. Wayne Cascio, Acting Director of the National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory, in an article titled, “Wildland Fire Smoke and Human Health,” published in the December 2017 issue of Science of the Total Environment.

Some people are more at risk

It’s especially important for you to pay attention to local air quality reports during a fire if you are

  • a person with heart or lung disease, such as heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma.

  • an older adult, which makes you more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.

  • caring for children, including teenagers, because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they’re more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma.

  • a person with diabetes, because you are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease.

  • a pregnant woman, because there could be potential health effects for both you and the developing fetus.

How to tell if smoke is affecting you

High concentrations of smoke can trigger a range of symptoms.

  • Anyone may experience burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

  • If you have heart or lung disease, smoke may make your symptoms worse

  •  People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue.

  •  People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.

When should I start taking precautions?

Smoke levels from forest fires may vary considerably due to fire conditions and wind directions. 

People who are at higher risk such as young children, the elderly and people with heart or lung conditions should consider taking precautions when smoke conditions are light to moderate. This is usually indicated by a smoke odour and haziness or visibility that is less than eight km.

People who are considered healthy should consider taking precautions when smoke conditions are heavy. Heavy smoke conditions exist when visibility is less than about four kilometres, and is especially of concern when these conditions last for a day or more.

Protect yourself!

It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke - especially if you are at increased risk for particle-related effects. For more information talk to your health care provider and take our Respiratory Lung Detox

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