Wednesday, October 3, 2012

10/3/2012 Smoke and Health Effects

There has been much interest in the health effects from the Wenatchee area wildfires.  Unfortunately there are no absolute answers but some of what is known about smoke and health is described below.  (Another good source of information is found on this page at the link on the upper right called "WA Dept of Health FAQs".) 

Wildfire Smoke and Health
A compilation of recent comments from
Washington Department of Ecology
Senior Toxicologist – Matt Kadlec, PhD, DAPT

·        Long-term effects of the wildfire smoke on people and the environment. 
Most people will recover once air quality is good, and animals and plants have the ability to repair damage from short-term smoke exposure.  Long-term effects are likely to be minimal. The main concern is short-term high exposure effects.  Effects can be minimized by taking certain precautions.  

·        Potential cancer risk. 
There are carcinogenic chemicals in wildfire smoke, but epidemiological research isn't yet sufficient to estimate how much additional risk people may have from the current smoke episode in eastern Washington. 

·        One point about the smoke that is particularly important. 
People should take the smoke seriously and take precautions.  When there are hazardous or unhealthy levels of smoke, people --especially ones that are very young or old and ones that have respiratory or cardiovascular disease-- should: 
·         Go to areas away from hazardous or unhealthy levels of smoke if possible.
·         Use HEPA air cleaners indoors (they can cut PM levels by a third to a half of outdoor levels) and keep vents closed
·         Use properly fitting N95 masks or better
·         Limit physical exertion 

·        How does wildfire smoke compare to cigarette smoke? 
Far more is known about cigarette smoking and in general it's probably not helpful to compare the two.  It's best to stick to the risks of wildfire smoke, as we know them. 

·        What can be said about the possible health effects from the smoke exposures experienced in Wenatchee recently?
Using the air quality measurements taken from 9/10/2012 to 9/20/2012, Wenatchee had daily average PM2.5 values ranging from 24 to 1130 µg/m3 minimum and maximum, respectively. The average was 383 µg/m3.  A population exposed at this average concentration, without taking any precautions, is likely to have much higher than normal rates of certain respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms. If they take no precautions, most people are likely to experience respiratory symptoms (cough, sneezing, runny nose, sputum production, or sore throat); some are likely to experience shortness of breath on walking and chest discomfort; and a few are likely to experience heart palpitations. Death is also possible. Relative to when the air quality is good, the rate of physician visits for respiratory diseases is likely to be double; and area hospital emergency departments are likely to see about double the usual number of people for respiratory illnesses and acute cardiovascular events, especially among people with prior diagnosis of respiratory or cardiovascular diseases such as COPD and ischemic heart disease.  It's likely there has been a sharp increase in the number (somewhere between two and 43 times the usual) of emergency department visits for asthma symptoms among people who have the kind that can be triggered by smoke.  People with a prior history of hospitalization for COPD are more likely to have been re-hospitalized for it or to have died when PM2.5 levels exceeded approximately 75 μg/m3.  Adequate precautions can reduce these risks. 

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