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The health hazards from wildfires can linger

The deadliest wildfire in California history will hurt the health of people who may never have seen the flam...

Posted: Nov 20, 2018 7:28 AM
Updated: Nov 20, 2018 7:28 AM

The deadliest wildfire in California history will hurt the health of people who may never have seen the flames.

Smoke from the Camp Fire, which has burned an area the size of Chicago, hangs heavy in parts of California, forcing schools to close and shutting down public transportation.

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Southwestern United States

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The air quality is so bad that San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento became the world's three "most polluted cities" on Friday, worse than hot spots in China and India, and firefighters say it probably won't go away any time soon. They predict the wildfires won't be out until the end of the month.

People in these areas should minimize the amount of time they spend outside, experts say.

Exposure to wildfire smoke in the short term can irritate your eyes, your sinuses and your throat. It can make you cough or wheeze, give you a headache and stress your heart, even if you are generally healthy.

For children, who breathe faster and tend to take in more of the polluted air than adults, this can be especially aggravating to still-developing lungs. For the elderly, who typically have more chronic conditions than younger adults, the wildfires can exacerbate those conditions. People with heart or lung disease, as well as pregnant women, are also vulnerable to the health problems the smoke can bring.

Particle pollution in the smoke is what puts your health most at risk. Fires burn trees but also destroy homes and businesses; the Camp Fire has destroyed more than 10,500 homes. In those structures are chemicals, plastics, pesticides, metals and other hazardous materials that add to this tiny pollution.

The pollution is so tiny -- 1/20th of a width of a human hair -- that it can travel past your body's usual defenses, and instead of getting breathed out, it can embed in your lungs, causing serious irritation.

"What's in the smoke from wildfires is, milligram per milligram, more toxic than tobacco smoke, although I certainly don't advocate smoking cigarettes, either," said Matt Kadlec, a senior toxicologist with the Washington Department of Ecology who has been studying the impact of smoke from wildfires. "The nice thing about the lungs is, at least in healthy people, most of that pollution gets cleared out eventually. It might take about a month or so if you are healthy. If you have COPD or some other chronic respiratory illness, it can take longer."

The other problem is that these tiny particles can go into circulation in your body.

"We don't know enough long-term what the impact is if they get into your vessel walls, if it maybe can lead to early heart disease," said Dr. Brian Christman, a volunteer national spokesman for the American Lung Association and professor and vice chairman for clinical affairs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Christman said research shows that exposure to smoke from wildfires can cause thousands of excess deaths a year and can lead to more hospital admissions for respiratory problems and cardiovascular issues.

"Definitely limit your time outside, and if you do have to go outside, the air tends to be a little better when it's cooler in the morning and gets worse during the day, but stay inside as much as you can," Christman said. "With the air quality numbers we are seeing right now, even normal healthy people are going to have trouble."

There are other things you can do to minimize the impact of this smoke on your health.

Keeping doors and windows closed helps, but the tiny particles can get into even well-sealed homes. To cut down on pollution, run central air conditioning if you have it, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and make sure the filter is clean. Also use a high-efficiency (HEPA) air-cleaning filter, but make sure you don't use one that makes ozone.

Washington Department of Ecology spokesman Andy Wineke said when that state's wildfires were bad this year, the agency advised people who couldn't get an air purifier with a HEPA filter to attach a standard furnace filter to a box fan to help clean the air.

Do not burn candles, fry or broil meat or even vacuum, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. All these activities can increase indoor air pollution.

If you have to go outside, use an N95 or P100 respirator, available in most hardware stores. Other dust masks and bandanas don't work with this kind of pollution.

Make sure the mask seals tightly to your face, because a gap means pollution can get in. The EPA says the masks don't work well for men with beards, because a good seal isn't possible with facial hair. If it's making it hard to breathe, talk to your doctor about using one.

In your car, make sure to keep the windows up and turn your air conditioner to the setting that recirculates air to reduce your exposure.

When the smoke clears, the EPA suggests airing out your home to reduce indoor pollution.

Because the number of fires has grown over the years, scientists say they will continue to study their impact on human health.

"I'm afraid the consequence of climate change mean that we are going to see more of these fires," Christman said. "This is going to be a growing concern for more of us in the future."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 96677

Reported Deaths: 2911
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds7143160
DeSoto559460
Harrison388374
Jackson350570
Madison331089
Rankin330679
Lee273670
Forrest248973
Jones248779
Washington225977
Lafayette219139
Lauderdale2059125
Bolivar184566
Oktibbeha179952
Lamar171635
Lowndes158058
Neshoba1579104
Panola149930
Sunflower147146
Leflore141081
Warren140750
Pontotoc127816
Pike124051
Monroe123568
Copiah119133
Scott117627
Coahoma116329
Marshall110617
Lincoln110253
Holmes109859
Grenada109036
Yazoo106230
Simpson104646
Tate100437
Union99824
Leake96038
Adams94137
Wayne90421
Pearl River89253
Marion86535
Prentiss86217
Covington82722
Itawamba82621
Alcorn82011
George78013
Tallahatchie77321
Newton77224
Winston74219
Tishomingo69038
Chickasaw68424
Tippah67117
Attala66725
Walthall60126
Clarke60046
Clay59518
Hancock58722
Jasper57515
Noxubee55116
Smith53415
Calhoun52112
Tunica49715
Claiborne46516
Montgomery46420
Yalobusha43514
Lawrence43313
Perry42419
Greene38817
Humphreys37715
Quitman3775
Stone37412
Jefferson Davis34211
Webster33813
Amite33210
Carroll31912
Wilkinson30518
Kemper29015
Sharkey26613
Jefferson2439
Benton2273
Franklin1933
Choctaw1866
Issaquena1053
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 134231

Reported Deaths: 2357
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson19676351
Mobile13373292
Montgomery8834184
Tuscaloosa8621118
Madison788178
Shelby597849
Lee589760
Baldwin547750
Marshall394343
Calhoun351544
Etowah349045
Morgan329228
Houston290321
Elmore266748
DeKalb241621
St. Clair232235
Walker231684
Talladega216629
Limestone210120
Cullman189920
Dallas179026
Franklin177129
Autauga176425
Russell17603
Lauderdale171333
Colbert164626
Blount161115
Escambia160824
Chilton158530
Jackson157511
Covington140127
Dale138644
Coffee13486
Pike119810
Chambers116442
Tallapoosa116085
Clarke109116
Marion96429
Butler91239
Barbour8827
Winston74412
Marengo72020
Pickens66214
Bibb65410
Lowndes65327
Randolph64713
Hale63528
Geneva6254
Lawrence62023
Cherokee60813
Bullock60414
Monroe5898
Clay5858
Washington55713
Perry5416
Crenshaw53732
Conecuh53511
Wilcox53111
Henry5055
Macon48018
Fayette4578
Sumter43819
Cleburne3805
Lamar3672
Choctaw34712
Greene30315
Coosa1713
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