College of Law > Academics > Centers, Institutes & Initiatives > Mary and Michael Jaharis Health Law Institute > e-Pulse Blog > the-deadly-smoke-from-the-wildfires

The Deadly Smoke from the Wildfires

The United States has experienced several wildfires this season in Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana. With these raging wildfires came smoke, soot, and ash, which covered some western states with a thick, smoky haze. As mentioned in the “Smoke From Wildfires Is Killing Hundreds of Thousands of People” article, “wildfires pose a serious, sometimes lethal threat to people’s health, particularly for those with asthma or heart disease.”

The smoke from the wildfires can be damaging to people’s health because it is comprised of gases and threatening fine particles. The “[s]moke’s biggest threat comes from the airborne, microscopic particles that slip past the body’s defense and reach the alveoli, the farthest ends of the respiratory system.” Thus, the particles from the smoke can penetrate deep into people’s lungs. These particles can even pass into people’s bloodstreams. In addition, the “[s]moke also contains carbon monoxide, which can cause long-lasting damage to the heart, and chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde, known to cause cancer in humans.” However, generally, carbon monoxide is a risk to firefighters and those who are exposed to the smoldering areas.

While the exposure to wildfire smoke may have minimal complications for most people, the smoke can be serious for those with heart conditions and respiratory illnesses as well as people in high risk groups such as people over 65 years of age, children, and pregnant women. A 2012 study found that during Southern California’s 2003 fires, babies weighed less at birth than those born before the fires.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers found that smoke may damage the heart since ER trips for breathing problems increased by sixty-six percent and heart failure increased thirty-seven percent after the smokiest days of the 2008 fire in eastern North Carolina. Other studies found “a tenfold increase in asthma attacks, emergency-room visits, and hospital admissions when smoke blankets places where people live.”

To make matters worse, smoke is not contained to one area because the air carries the smoke across continents, mountains, and oceans. Even though the wildfires are burning in the western regions of the United States, the winds spread the ash across the country. The Rough Fire, which spread through national forests and parks in California from July through October of 2015, “was lofting thick smoke, soot, and ash into the air-and into the lungs of… [a person] 35 miles away.” Also, the smoke may stay for a while, especially since layers of stagnant air may hold the smoke down. For this reason, it is important to check air pollutant levels since “[o]n some days, the health threat can far exceed the air pollutant levels that federal standards allow.”

In order to stay safe, people should limit their exposure from the deadly smoke. Those who are in the midst of the smoke should stay indoors with the windows and doors shut. Unfortunately, there is no escape from the smoke and “billions of people are finding that the air carries a dangerous dose​ of smoke as wildfires become bigger and more intense.”

Natalie Ficek is currently a third-year student at DePaul University College of Law. Natalie holds a Political Science Degree from DePaul University. She has a special interest in health law and will complete her law degree and certificate in health law in 2018.