Wildfires are increasing in both frequency and intensity due to climate change. This increase means there is a threat to air quality as well as public safety. Wildfire smoke carries many harmful air pollutants, and human exposure to these pollutants can have serious health consequences.
What Is In Wildfire Smoke?
Wildfire smoke has several components, including carbon monoxide, hazardous air pollutants, water vapor, and particle pollution.
Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter (PM), consists of solid particles and liquid droplets. Particulate matter is concerning because the particles can be so small that they cause several problems when inhaled.
Particles that are less than 10 micrometers in diameter can enter the lungs. Some particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers may even be able to enter the circulation system. Particles larger than 10 micrometers are not a significant health concern because they cannot enter the lungs; however, they may still irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.
The components of wildfire smoke can have an impact on many different systems in the human body. Studies look at short term exposure to wildfire smoke, and several health impacts are recorded. 
Below are the ways wildfires can have an impact on respiratory, cardiovascular, and mental health.
1. Respiratory System
Wildfire smoke can travel many miles from where the wildfire is, affecting not just the people in the immediate area of the wildfire. 
The particulate matter found in wildfire smoke can trigger asthma attacks, strokes, and even heart attacks. These health impacts can happen not only to people who have pre-existing issues but also to healthy people.
Increased wildfire smoke is associated with declines in lung function, increased visits to a physician or emergency department for respiratory problems. Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, chronic heart disease, or diabetes make respiratory issues from wildfire smoke worse.
2. Cardiovascular System
Wildfire smoke contains particles that have an impact on lung health and can affect heart health as well. According to the American Heart Association, wildfire smoke can exacerbate heart conditions. 
In 2015 the California Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency reviewed over a million emergency room visits. These visits found a connection between wildfire smoke exposure and an increased rate of heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and pulmonary embolism. 
As mentioned previously, one of the main culprits is the fine particulate matter found in wildfire smoke. These tiny particles can travel into the bloodstream leading to inflammation, blood clots, and heart attacks. 
Even short-term exposure is enough to cause cardiac arrhythmias, worsen heart failure, and trigger cardiovascular complications. Irregular heartbeats, heart attacks, and even premature death have been attributed to particulate matter.
3. Mental Health
Not only has research shown the effects of wildfires on physical health, but it turns out there are impacts on mental health as well. Research has found that direct exposure to wildfires, like the Camp Fire of 2018 in California, can lead to long-term mental health disorders such as PTSD and depression. 
Wildfires are increasing both in intensity and frequency. People who have experienced a wildfire may also experience anxiety and distress because wildfires are rising due to climate change. They may feel anxious about the likelihood that another wildfire will impact their life. People may have lost their homes or even loved ones in wildfires. This loss could also cause anxiety and depression in people.
Ways To Protect Your Health
While wildfires can cause a variety of health concerns, there are ways to help protect yourself. According to the American Lung Association, one way to be prepared is to develop an emergency plan. An emergency plan includes an evacuation plan and an emergency kit. 
It is important to stay indoors if possible if you are in or close to an area impacted by a wildfire. If you must go outside, consider a properly fitted N-95 mask if available. If you are in an area prone to wildfires, it may be beneficial to invest in HEPA filters to protect you from harmful particles.
- EPA (2021) California Prepares for Increased Wildfire Risk to Air Quality From Climate Change.
- EHP (2016) Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure.
- EPA (2020) Why Wildfire Smoke is a Health Concern.
- EPA (2021) Particulate Matter Basics
- EPA (n.d.) Health Effects Attributed to Wildfire Smoke
- American Lung Association (2016) How Wildfires Affect Our Health
- Environmental Health (2012) Cardio-Respiratory Outcomes Associated With Exposure to Wildfire Smoke Are Modified by Measures of Community Health
- American Heart Association (2019) Where There’s Wildfire Smoke, There May be Health Problems
- Particle and Fibre Toxicology (2021) Cardiovascular Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure
- American Heart Association (2021) Wildfires Can Cause Mental Health Damage That Smolders Years After the Flames Go Out
- CDC (2020) Climate and Health – Mental Health and Stress-Related Disorders
- American Lung Association (2021) Wildfires
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