Smoke from Canadian fires raises health concerns in the U.S.

Photo (c) Andrew Holt - Getty Images

Nearly a third of the country is breathing in smoke

Much of the Northeast and Midwest have been enveloped in thick smoke this week from some 400 wildfires raging across Canada. Cities like New York and Detroit are covered by a thick haze and the smoke has drifted as far south as South Carolina.

State health officials across the region have issued warnings to residents, saying conditions may be hazardous for people, especially those with respiratory issues.  Chris Coleman at DH Lifelabs in Los Angeles, says the smoke is more than just a nuisance. The smoke contains tiny particles that millions of people are now breathing in.

“Those tiny specks, PM2.5 they’re called, are so small they can sneak deep into our lungs and even sneak into our bloodstream,” Coleman told ConsumerAffairs. “These uninvited guests can cause all sorts of problems.”

For example, if you’re suffering from asthma or COPD it can get worse. Symptoms may include shortness of breath and coughing. 

Cardiovascular threat

Dr. Manuel Flores, provost at the University of Health Sciences Antigua, says the pollution in the smoke can affect more than just the lungs.

“The fine particles can also enter the bloodstream and have systemic effects, potentially impacting cardiovascular health and increasing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular events,” he said.

“Just like a virus, air pollution is a silent killer,” Keith Lambert, president of Oxidizers and a pollution control expert, told us. “As we breathe in pollutants we have the damage done in the lungs as well as the introduction of toxins to the bloodstream and body.”

Dr. Jie Zhao, executive vice president at Delos, points to a study that found that exposure to PM2.5 during wildfire events was associated with increased ambulatory dispatches after just one hour of exposure.

“Given that wildfire smoke can spread thousands of miles away, the effects of smoke exposure are far-reaching and can greatly impact us all,” he said.

And not all of the negative effects of smoky air pollution are physical.

“Further, wildfire smoke could lead to adverse mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression, Jun Wu, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, told us. “Finally, some studies suggest that fine particulate matter from wildfire-specific sources might pose a greater threat to human health than that from other air pollution sources.”

Closely monitor air quality

Sean Marchese is a registered nurse at The Mesothelioma Center with a background in oncology clinical trials. He urges people in affected areas to closely monitor air quality and avoid vigorous outdoor activities.

"It's important to note that wildfires can release asbestos fibers from damaged or burning structures that contain asbestos, Marchese said. "Asbestos, when inhaled, can cause severe respiratory diseases, including lung cancer and mesothelioma."

The experts we consulted say exposure to the smoke may produce short-term symptoms like irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs, coughing, and shortness of breath. People with pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular diseases may find their symptoms get worse.

Keeping the pollution out of your home is also important. If your air conditioner has a “recirculate” setting, use it to limit the intrusion of outside air. Portable air purifiers may also help. 

“When the air quality is poor, as it is right now, the air purifiers should be run at maximum speed/capacity,” Zhao said.

Wearing a mask may also help, but remember that most masks made of cloth are not very effective. Our experts say a properly-fitted N95 is the only type of mask that can meaningfully reduce the amount of fine particulate matter that you inhale.

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