As the threat of wildfires increases across parts of the country, so too do the health harms of the smoke they create, experts warned during a recent webinar from APHA’s Center for Climate, Health and Equity.

“A lot of people don't know wildfire smoke is even dangerous, equating it to sitting around a campfire, thinking it's more of an annoying smell than an actual health hazard,” said panelist Melissa Nootz, a Montana field organizer for the Moms Clean Air Force, during the webinar “After the Smoke Clears: How Wildfires Impact Our Health.”

Indeed, research into the harms of wildfires shows that the disasters can have serious and long-term impacts on a person’s health, noted APHA member Wayne Cascio, MD, director of the Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We know that wildfire emissions likely contribute to or cause mortality and worsen asthma, chronic lung disease and childhood respiratory diseases,” he said during the webinar. 

A study Cascio participated in revealed just how detrimental wildfire smoke could be to a person’s health. “We found that, one day after exposure to wildfire smoke during the 2015 California wildfires, all respiratory visits to emergency departments increased by 18% and all cardiovascular visits by 12%,” Cascio reported. “Heart attacks rose by 42% and strokes by 22%.” 

Like the COVID-19 pandemic and other natural disasters, wildfires disproportionately impact communities of color and other at-risk groups, like children and those with existing health conditions. Children’s respiratory systems are still developing, and people of color typically experience higher rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease — all of which make them especially susceptible to health complications triggered by wildfire smoke. Wildfires also disproportionately impact farmworkers, who may be forced to work in extreme heat or unhealthy air. 

“The idea that everybody is impacted by unhealthy air is certainly true, but we know that there are communities across the population that are highly impacted and highly vulnerable,” said panelist Will Barrett, director of Clean Air Advocacy at the American Lung Association in California. 

People with low incomes are particularly at risk — something Nootz said she saw firsthand when a wildfire broke out in her home state of Montana in June. “The first recommendation was for vulnerable people to leave the area,” Nootz said. “While an ideal health precaution, it's expensive, not realistic for many and problematic if these same vulnerable people are self isolating during a pandemic.” 

Panelists also recommended using high efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, purifiers to reduce the impact of wildfire smoke, but the hefty price tag on the filters creates yet another challenge for people with low incomes. 

“Staying indoors with air conditioning and HEPA filters is the best, but many Montanans don't even have air conditioning,” Nootz said. “Most of us are left to choose between opening our windows to dirty air or risking heat stroke with closed windows and slightly cleaner air inside.”

Visit APHA to watch the new wildfire webinar. For more environmental health resources, visit the Center for Climate, Health and Equity.