How all the smoke in the air affects human health

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The west coast has been under a blanket of smoke from wildfires. Photo taken on September 14, 2020. Photo by Peter Stevens/CC BY 2.0

The west coast’s record-setting wildfires have produced days of record-setting hazardous air quality. The ash in the sky has forced much of California into an extended smoke advisory, meaning almost all residents should stay indoors. But after more than a week, it’s tough to flee from bad air quality, and climate scientists say these bad air events will become more common.

And that smoke can lead to more than watery eyes and burning lungs.

“Even within an hour of a community experiencing wildfire smoke, you can see an increase in ambulance calls both for respiratory and cardiac arrest calls,” says Dr. Mary Prunicki, director of Air Pollution and Health Research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University. “And we know that there are increases in hospital and ER visits when there’s increases in wildfire smoke.”

Prunicki says smoke can paralyze the body’s defenses and change the regulation of our immune systems. That is especially problematic amidst a global pandemic.

“When a population is exposed to wildfire smoke, their flu season and the following few months is worse. There’s been a lot of predictions that because we’re exposed to all this smoke, the COVID rates and severity will go up in our areas.”

Prunkcki says the best defense against the smoke is to stay indoors and improve air quality at home by using the air conditioning and buying or creating an air purifier at home. Those that must venture outside should wear a mask.

Credits

Guest:
Dr. Mary Prunicki - director of Air Pollution and Health Research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Caleigh Wells, Angie Perrin