With a heat wave and wildfires, inhaling a ‘toxic soup’ can harm people’s lungs

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With fires burning throughout California and smoky/hazy conditions casting orange glows over LA and San Francisco, people may be wondering whether the air they’re breathing could affect their health.

Rachel Becker, an environment reporter for CalMatters, has some answers. 

KCRW: What is in the smoky air?

Becker: “When a wildfire burns through vegetation, it churns out fine airborne particle pollution. It churns out soot that can irritate the lungs, and has been linked to heart and lung problems, premature death. There are also gases like carbon monoxide, cancer-causing chemicals that mix into this smoke cloud as well. And it creates this toxic soup that can change depending on what is burning and how hot it's burning. 

As those chemicals stew in the atmosphere, they keep reacting. They break apart and join together and make new ingredients that people can inhale and that can harm people's lungs.” 

If I don't smell the smoke, does that mean the air is okay? 

“Not necessarily. There still could be fine, airborne particles. What you're smelling isn't necessarily reflecting what that health risk could be.”

What do these airborne particles do to our body?

“Researchers have found increases in emergency room visits for heart problems, for breathing problems. There are reports of increased risk from stroke during wildfire smoke events.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned that wildfire smoke can increase susceptibility to lung infections, including the novel coronavirus. 

If people can, they should stay inside, run their air conditioners, shut their windows, and wear N-95 respirators if they go outside. 

But as we know, those masks are in short supply right now. And people coping with the heat may not be able to afford running their air conditioners, or they may be using air conditioners that suck in air from the outside. There are also folks, like farm workers, who are working outside right now. So not every Californian may be able to keep themselves as safe as they need to.”

What happens when you breathe in wildfire smoke over the course of years?

“It can't be good for you. I mean, this is a climate change story, a collision of crises we can expect to see more of. Climate change is worsening wildfires, it's making it hotter, and our air is going to get dirtier.

Heat can stew the toxic soup of air pollution. The air can become stagnant. It can trap pollutants and increase surface levels of smog. And that's in addition to all of the particulates and smoke we have in the air.

It's this vicious spiral that's caught Californians and isn't letting go, and lower income Californians are going to be hit especially hard.”



  • Rachel Becker - reporter covering climate change and environmental politics for CalMatters