2021 was the worst year for wildfires burning 1/3 of the 7.4 million acres of land lost/year since 2001 – and it's only getting worse. The number of wildfires is expected to increase by almost 15% by 2030 and 30 per cent by 2050, found a UNEP-backed report released earlier this year. With the climate crisis expected to spark a surge in wildfires — their numbers could grow by 50 per cent by 2100.
Along with the devastating loss of trees, accompanying smoke poses significant health risks as the UN reports air pollution to be responsible for 7 million deaths annually (that's 10% of all deaths)!
In the article, we'll explain the basics of what wildfire smoke is, how its affects impact your health and immediate health precautions you can take to protect your health!
Wildfire smoke consists of a complex mixture of gases and fine particulate matter (PM), which can vary in size and composition. Of particular concern are the microscopic particles known as PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less). These tiny particles can penetrate deep into our respiratory system, traveling through our bloodstream causing a range of health problems.
Respiratory Issues: Inhaling wildfire smoke can irritate the respiratory system, leading to symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort. Individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma, chronic bronchitis, or allergies are especially vulnerable. Studies have also shown repeated exposure to wildfire smoke can contribute to a decline in lung function – affecting those with pre-existing respiratory conditions, older adults, and children more severely and potentially leading to long-term respiratory impairment.
Cardiovascular Effects: The fine particles in wildfire smoke can enter the bloodstream, triggering inflammation and oxidative stress. This can exacerbate cardiovascular conditions, increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems.
Increased Susceptibility to Infections: Wildfire smoke can weaken the immune system and make individuals more susceptible to respiratory infections, including pneumonia and bronchitis. It can also exacerbate existing respiratory infections, leading to prolonged illness and increased risk of complications.
Cancer Risk: The toxic chemicals present in wildfire smoke, such as benzene and formaldehyde, have been associated with an increased risk of developing certain types of cancer over time. Prolonged exposure to these carcinogens may heighten the chances of lung cancer, bladder cancer, and other respiratory-related malignancies.
Mental Health Effects: Wildfires and prolonged exposure to smoke can also have psychological and emotional impacts. The stress and anxiety caused by the threat to one's safety, property, and disruption of daily life can contribute to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety disorders.
Severity of long-term health impacts vary depending on factors such as the intensity and duration of exposure, individual susceptibility, and overall health status. However, taking proactive measures to protect yourself from wildfire smoke, such as reducing exposure, staying informed, and maintaining a healthy indoor living environment can help mitigate these long-term health risks.
Understanding the potential long-term health effects of wildfire smoke highlights the importance of taking preventive actions and advocating for effective strategies to support your health!
1. Stay Informed: Monitor local air quality reports and listen to official announcements regarding wildfire activity in your area. Websites, apps, and local news sources can provide real-time information on air quality and evacuation orders.
2. Limit Exposure: Whenever possible, stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed to minimize the entry of smoke. Use air purifiers (like the Breeze or Refresh!) with high efficacy filters that remove smoke particulates, neutralize chemicals to protect your indoor spaces.
3. Create a Clean Indoor Environment: Create a makeshift clean room. Seal off a small space in your home by using weather-stripping or tape to cover any gaps where smoke may enter. Minimize activities that could generate additional indoor pollutants, such as smoking or burning candles and turn on a powerful air purifier (Breeze or Refresh) like ours – capable of changing the molecular composition of air that captures air pollutants while creating new, fresh clean air. This allows your indoor spaces to get the highest quality of air for your health when opening windows is not an option.
4. Use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): When going outdoors, especially in areas with heavy smoke, consider wearing an N95 or N99 respirator mask to filter out harmful particles. These masks provide a tight seal around the mouth and nose, offering better protection than standard cloth masks.
5. Seek Relief in Safe Spaces: If you don't have access to clean indoor air, seek alternative clean environments like community centres, libraries, or shopping malls that have adequate air filtration systems.
6. Stay Hydrated: Drinking plenty of water helps maintain overall health and can potentially alleviate some symptoms associated with exposure to smoke.
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