The Health Effects of Fire and Smoke in California
The fierce wildfires that continue to engulf parts of California in 2020 produce intense smoke, much of which can cause a range of health problems in people who inhale it. California’s wildfire smoke, while causing a range of health effects in residents, can even affect people thousands of miles away.
About the Forest Fires in California
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) responds to all types of wildfire emergencies. As of date, CAL FIRE has determined over four million acres have burned, 8685 wildfire incidents have been documented and 9247 structures were destroyed.
In Monterey county, the Coleman Fire started as recently as late October. The Glass Fire in Napa and Sonoma counties began in late September and destroyed 67,484 acres. Early September fires include the Fork Fire in El Dorado county and the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles county.
The wildfires have stretched from northern California to its southern tip. Residents experience choking smoke. The damaging effects of California wildfire smoke even impact those on the East Coast. Smoke can continue to cause ill health for several years after the wildfires have been squashed.
Wildfire smoke is distinct from factory smoke emitted through stationary smokestacks. Wildfire smoke can present itself as tiny wisps one moment and then raging plumes of darkened masses a few minutes later. Unpredictable wildfire smoke may also swiftly change direction at any given moment.
What compounds make wildfire smoke dangerous?
The ozone and particulate matter in smoke particles make this type of smoke hazardous to the people who inhale it. Carbon monoxide and carcinogens, like formaldehyde and benzene, are also components in smoke particles, making it extremely dangerous to those who breathe them in.
Particulate matter from wildfire smoke is of primary concern, because it can be inhaled and reach the deepest parts of the lungs. Particulate matter is extremely small, being less than one micrometer in diameter (in comparison, a human hair is 60 micrometers in diameter).
Carbon monoxide from wildfire smoke is another pollutant that concerns health officials. As a colorless, odorless gas, carbon monoxide is produced when wood or other organic materials fail to completely combust. As wildfires smolder, the carbon monoxide levels are highest.
The composition of smoke particles depends on the fire’s fuel source, wind conditions and the fire’s temperature. Wood and vegetation contain variable levels of cellulose, oils, tannins, resins and waxes, which produce different compounds when burned. Consequently, wildfire smoke contains thousands of compounds.
How does wildfire smoke impact health?
Wildfire smoke can cause either minor or severe health problems. The smoke can cause minor irritations to the eye and respiratory tract in some people. Exposure to high concentrations of particulate matter from wildfire smoke can also lead to persistent cough, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
Severe symptoms from wildfire smoke include reduced lung function, bronchitis and an increased aggravation of asthma symptoms. In some instances, particulate matter can lead to premature death. Even healthy people can experience transient reductions in lung function and pulmonary inflammation.
Inhaling particulate matter is the biggest public health concern, because it can affect the body’s immune system and make it more difficult to remove inhaled particles, like pollen and bacteria, from the lungs. Fine particles are linked with increased mortality and triggering pre-existing cardiovascular disease.
Carcinogens, like benzene and formaldehyde, are present in wildfire smoke but in small quantities (in comparison to particulate matter and carbon monoxide). Although these respiratory irritants contribute to the irritant properties of smoke, their lower concentrations make them less of a public health threat.
Are some populations more sensitive to wildfire smoke?
Most healthy people recover swiftly after exposure to wildfire smoke and do not suffer long-term ill health. However, certain populations are more at risk for developing adverse health problems. Sensitive populations are more likely to experience chronic or more severe symptoms from smoke exposure.
These sensitive populations include people with asthma or other respiratory diseases. They respond differently to the same levels of smoke exposure experienced by healthy people. Exposure to wildfire smoke can also worsen emphysema and chronic bronchitis (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases).
The elderly, who often have pre-existing lung and heart conditions, are also at a higher risk for premature death from the particulate air pollution in wildfire smoke. Plus, as people age, their respiratory defense mechanisms decline, making them more susceptible to air pollutants.
Children, too, are considered to be more sensitive to wildfire smoke, due to the fact that their lungs are still developing. At this developmental stage, they are more vulnerable to the negative health effects of air pollution than healthy adults. Children also spend more time outdoors and inhale more air.
As the California wildfires continue to rage, health officials advise sensitive populations to remain indoors with the windows tightly shut. Even in a healthy person, 30 minutes in the polluted outdoor air can lead to a headache. A “clean room” where smoke is filtered from air should be established.
Get Help from a Fire Restoration Expert
When the California wildfires burn, sparks can leap and cause nearby structures to catch fire. Once fire officials extinguish the flames, call ServiceMaster EMT for immediate fire damage restoration services. We’ll restore your property to its pre-loss condition quickly and safely.
ServiceMaster EMT technicians are highly experienced and skilled in restoring fire damaged homes. Our comprehensive fire restoration services include the restoration of damaged personal belongings, repair of the home’s physical structure and returning the property to its pre-damaged state.
Our skilled technicians clean the walls, carpets, ceilings and upholstery of soot and smoke. We offer emergency pre-cleaning, content cleaning and reliable pack out services. Given that offensive odors are an outcome of smoke damage, our specialists perform thorough odor removal services.
Los Angeles County is just one area that has been hard hit by wildfires. If your Los Angeles property has been destroyed by wildfires, contact ServiceMaster EMT at 800-376-6678. We provide emergency fire damage restoration services in Los Angeles, California, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.