Wildfire smoke can mean trouble for all, but especially sensitive groups

hazy coastal sunset

Posted Oct. 13, 2017

There are currently 22 devastating wildfires consuming more than 170,000 acres of Northern California , and winds are transporting smoke and soot pollution from those fires to parts of the Sacramento region. Officials here are currently categorizing the pollution impacts on our air quality as moderate to severe, with some noting that conditions are the worst they’ve seen here over such a large area.

With the high winds blowing throughout the valley, the fire smoke can create health risks for everyone, and especially for members of sensitive groups – such as adults 65 years and older, young children, and people who suffer from serious health conditions such as existing heart or lung disease. 

Officials with regional air quality agencies like the Yolo-Solano Air Quality Management District are advising all people – regardless of physical fitness, age or health – to pay close attention to how their bodies are reacting.

Until Northern California’s fires are extinguished and the air quality index reduces, local air quality officials highly recommend taking precautions and limiting outdoor activities, staying indoors, and immediately contacting your health care provider if you have breathing complications.

To monitor current air quality conditions and forecasts – including smoke conditions and advice – consider following the Spare the Air website operated by the region’s air districts at www.sparetheair.com, and signing up for its free air alerts.

Health effects

An existing problem

Even without the fires, the Sacramento region perennially has some of the nation’s worst air quality, according to analyses from groups such as the American Lung Association.

According to a 2016 association report, high air-pollution levels are already a health risk for an estimated 150,000 adults and 52,000 children in the Sacramento area diagnosed with asthma.

Exposure over time to polluted air can have major long-term health effects, including accelerated aging and decreased lung function; diseases such as emphysema or chronic respiratory disease; irregular heartbeat; nonfatal heart attacks; and even death, according to local air districts.

Smoke from burning vegetation or other wildfire "fuels" isn’t the only pollutant putting individuals at risk – a new scientific review by UC Davis toxicology students also suggests that retardant chemicals used to eliminate fires may be a contributing hazard to the air we breathe, and deserve more formal study. The amount of retardant used in California from 2012 to 2015 increased from about 3 million gallons to about 7 million.

While the fires continue to blaze, particulate pollutants are released into the air. These small particles can bypass the body’s defenses and enter the lungs and possibly the bloodstream. Exposure to this smoke and soot pollution can cause a variety of symptoms which can vary in significance for different risk groups, ranging from annoying to potentially deadly.

Outward short-term symptoms can include:

  • runny nose and sinus irritation
  • throat irritation
  • itchy eyes
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Because the atmosphere is highly polluted and air quality conditions are poor, people who suffer from health conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or heart disease are especially more susceptible to breathing attacks triggered by the conditions.

“Asthma takes on many different forms and symptoms that can be triggered by a wide variety of conditions, but especially by poor quality air generated by wildfires and other sources of particulate pollution,” said Kent Pinkerton, a pulmonary health researcher and director of the UC Davis Center for Health and the Environment. “These particles can increase airway secretions to reduce the flow of air, as well cause smooth muscle contraction to narrow the airways. Both conditions lead to shortness of breath, and in many cases, trigger an asthmatic attack.”

Be smart with masks

When the air quality index rises to more acutely unhealthy levels (generally 101 or higher), some people with irritated airways or in sensitive groups may begin thinking about wearing a ventilated mask that covers the nose and throat when going outside. However, it’s important to make a couple of considerations first:

  • Not all masks will be effective and especially regular everyday “dust masks.” The California Department of Health recommends choosing a particulate mask with two straps, labeled NIOSH and marked with either N95 or P100.
  • Since such masks can be difficult for people with lung disease to use, the American Lung Association recommends consulting with your doctor before using a mask, especially if you have already have a lung condition.

Related stories and resources

Air quality data from the Sacramento region’s Spare the Air website 

Too little is known about the compounds in wildfire smoke 

Protecting communities from unhealthy exposures 

Environmental toxins and disease 

Surviving summer with chronic lung disease 

Lung doctors expect respiratory diseases will worsen with global climate change