- Recent research finds that wildfire smoke not only contains a range of toxic chemicals, but it can increase the risk of contracting respiratory viruses like the coronavirus.
- While wildfires are predominantly occurring in the western United States, smoke from these fires can affect areas thousands of miles away.
- On July 20, New York state warned that the Air Quality Index could reach 100, meaning members of sensitive groups may experience health effects due to particles from West Coast wildfires.
This year’s California wildfire season has affected vast swathes of the United States, with plumes of smoke carried on the jet stream as far as the East Coast.
The situation was extreme enough that an Air Quality Health Advisory was issued for New York state due to elevated levels of fine particulate matter from wildfires on the west coasts of the United States and Canada.
Recent research finds that wildfire smoke not only contains a range of toxic chemicals, but it can increase the risk of contracting respiratory viruses like the coronavirus.
“Air quality is determined by four or five different particles: ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and that gives an air quality index,” Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.
He explained that air quality is measured on a numbered scale that goes from 0 to 500, but it doesn’t have to get anywhere near that high before presenting significant health risks.
“From 0 to 50 it starts to be good, from 50 to 100 it starts to be moderately ‘not good,’ and anything above 150 to 200 — even though the scale goes to 500 — but above 150 to 200 is [considered] really bad air quality,” Horovitz said.
According to AirNow.gov, home of the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI), any measurement between 151 and 300 (or higher) increases health risks for everyone.
On July 20, New York state warned that the AQI could reach 100, meaning members of sensitive groups may experience health effects due to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) from West Coast wildfires.
According to the New York State Department of Health, PM 2.5 are tiny particles in the air that reduce visibility and cause the air to appear hazy when levels are elevated.
“The theory, of course, is that particulate matter, the PM 2.5 of particles, once they’re smaller than 2.5 microns, are small enough to burrow into the lungs and create or exacerbate any underlying lung conditions,” Horovitz said.
“Be it asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and of course COVID-19, it may be a more of a fertile ground of inflammation for COVID-19 to settle in,” he said.
Horovitz emphasized that this theory “certainly makes sense” when you look at the exacerbation of chronic illnesses by poor air quality, smoke inhalation, and West Coast wildfires.
However, distance from the wildfires could help reduce the risk.
“The more that it [wildfire smoke] can be diluted as it travels from west to east, the better,” Horovitz said. “It’s obviously less dense here on the East Coast than it is in the West, so yes, the more that it spreads out, is diluted by the jet stream, by moisture, with rain taking particles out of the air, the better.”
Smoke from wildfires may greatly increase susceptibility to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, finds recent
Researchers found a nearly 18 percent rise in COVID-19 cases after a prolonged 2020 wildfire smoke event in Reno, Nevada.
Scientists used models to look at the relationship between PM 2.5 from wildfire smoke and COVID-19 test positivity rate data from Renown Health, a large, integrated healthcare network serving Nevada, Lake Tahoe, and northeast California.
They concluded that PM 2.5 from wildfire smoke was responsible for a 17.7 percent increase in COVID-19 cases occurring during a smoke event that took place between Aug. 16 and Oct. 10, 2020.
“Our results showed a substantial increase in the COVID-19 positivity rate in Reno during a time when we were affected by heavy wildfire smoke from California wildfires,” said Daniel Kiser, MS, co-lead study author and assistant research scientist of data science at DRI, in a statement.
Kiser added that these findings are significant in light of the current wildfires raging in the West and “with COVID-19 cases again rising in Nevada and other parts of the Western U.S.”
Research by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) found that toxins like lead, zinc, and manganese spiked during the deadly Camp Fire of 2018.
According to CARB, burning structures can produce a range of harmful and toxic substances.
CARB’s analysis found this was the case during the Camp Fire, which burned for more than 2 weeks. During that time, elevated levels of lead, zinc, calcium, iron, and manganese were detected in the air.
Smoke carrying these metals traveled over 150 miles and was detected in air as far away as San Jose and Modesto, according to CARB’s analysis.
“We can all have HEPA air filters in our indoors, our living spaces,” advised Horovitz.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, HEPA stands for “high efficiency particulate air [filter]” and is a type of pleated mechanical air filter. It may remove at least 99.97 percent of contaminants, and “any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm).”
Horovitz emphasized that HEPA air filters, like the air filter in our air conditioners, are critical protection against the dangers of particulate matter from wildfire smoke.
“Staying indoors, using HEPA air filters, using air conditioning, these are things that people on the West Coast are doing to try to avoid really toxic levels of particulate matter,” he said.
The current wildfires on the west coasts of the United States and Canada have reduced air quality across the nation, even as far as the East Coast.
Experts say that fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke can exacerbate lung-related health conditions and increase the risk of coronavirus infection and developing COVID-19.
Research also finds wildfire smoke can contain toxic substances that include lead, and these substances were detected nearly 200 miles away from the deadly 2018 Camp Fire.