The Long-Term Health Impacts of Wildfires

5 minute read

By Christopher Brown

We’ve just endured another banner year for wildfires. The steady rise in temperatures across the globe creates super-fires that last longer and spread further than ever before. Start a search today to learn the long-term health impacts of wildfires.

As with any disaster, natural or otherwise, research and preparedness can often be the difference between life and death. Today, we explore the very real threat that wildfires pose to your health, your property, and your immediate surroundings.

Respiratory Difficulties

It may go without saying, but all the same, it bears repeating. A recent study published on the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s website has gone in-depth on the various health threats of living near the site of a wildfire.

Understandably, one of the main threats to the human population is one of air quality. According to the study, wildfire smoke consists of “particulate matter and gaseous products of combustion.” The smoke can dramatically impact the quality of the air in the areas surrounding the wildfire, and poses a few risks for the people living there.

Research suggests that, across the board, wildfires have an overwhelmingly negative effect on the lung function of all those within the affected area.

Increased Mortality Rate Amongst Vulnerable Populations

As with any large-scale environmental catastrophe, those who are hurt the most are those who are already hurting. Patients suffering from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease are at an increased risk of mortality, as are young children, and smokers.

In short, smoke inhalation from a nearby wildfire can put a significant and long-term strain on the population’s lung-function as a whole. On a personal level, it’s dangerous. On a societal level, it can be a downright epidemic.

Heart Problems

The aforementioned study also notes an increase in emergency room admissions for heart disease related illness on days where wildfire air pollution was present. Cardiovascular mortality rates also increased on those days as well. For example, in the California wildfires of 2003, the local doctors tabulated a 6.1 percent increase in cardiovascular complaints, and an 11.3 percent increase in cardiac failure.

But there’s more. Even if you’re lucky enough to weather the initial occurrence, “the longer-term health effects from low level exposure to aldehydes and other carcinogens from bushfire smoke may remain a cause for medical concern.” Simply being around a wildfire may increase your likelihood of future heart problems. That’s some scary facts.

Eye Damage

The heat and airborne particles present in a large-scale wildfire pose dangers, not just to your respiratory system and your heart, but to your eyes as well.

Visibility on roadways can lead to accidents in the short-term, but it’s the corneal abrasions that can leave an impact long after the final ember has been extinguished.

A corneal abrasion (or a scratched cornea), can leave a lasting impact on a person’s vision. The study notes that, in the particular case of the 1991 wildfires in California, that 13 percent of ER visits were for this very issue.

Psychological Effects

It’s easier to quantify the long-lasting physical health effects of wildfire exposure, but understanding the psychological effects can prove to be much more difficult.

Wildfires can destroy property and take lives, dramatically re-shaping the lives of those living in the surrounding community. It can certainly take a toll on the collective mental health of the local population. The study reported that 42 percent of the population exposed to previous Australian bushfires were classified as potential psychiatric cases.

Following the 2003 California wildfires, 33 percent of the individuals who sought healthcare assistance showed signs of depression, while 24 percent showed symptoms of PTSD.

Limits on Resources and Access to Medical Care

As with any large-scale disaster, wildfires can put a strain on access to life-saving resources and local medical care. Hospital beds, bottles of water, gasoline… they’re all in short supply in times of crisis, and that limited supply simply makes all other, unrelated medical conditions worse as a result.

Wildfires can create physical barriers by blocking routes to local hospitals, a limited access to food and water can exacerbate pre-existing illnesses as well. And, the increased volume of emergency room patients spreads healthcare workers thin, which may affect their ability to do their job effectively and efficiently.

Water and Land Pollution

Despite what the oil lobby says, human health is intertwined with that the health of our natural environment. And, when wildfires hit, out air, water and surrounding land masses usually get served with a toxic dose of pollution.

When testing for potential water contamination in Lithuania following the wildfires of 2002, researchers documented an increase of 60 to 81 percent in heavy metal pollution. Conversely, the ash debris from the California wildfires of 2007 was found to contain high levels of heavy metals including arsenic, copper, and lead. That’s not good. Contaminated water supplies on this scale can cause health problems that are sure to echo through the local hospitals for decades.

Here’s how you can protect yourself against the long-term health risks of wildfires.

Protecting Yourself: Plan Ahead

Wildfires are a force of nature that have rendered entire communities unrecognizable. There’s not much an individual can do to guarantee the safety of their home or surrounding area, but there are a number of steps that anyone can take.

The Montana Division of Disaster and Emergency Services recommends that you clear your house of combustibles, close windows and vents, prune the branches of taller trees and clearly mark water sources on your property. That’s for the short term.

Protect Yourself: Air Filtration

Picking up a high-efficiency air-filtration system during or following a wildfire is an effective way of filtering out the harmful particles present in the air around you.

When shopping for a new air filtration system, be sure to choose one with the HEPA designation. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air. These types of filters rely on a fine mesh to trap harmful particles from inhalation.

You’ll also want to avoid any addition, smoke-creating indoor activities. Fires, smoking, candles… you’ll want to limit your smoke intake as much as possible.

Protect Yourself: Stay up to Date

Your local municipality should provide your community with up-to-date water and air pollution conditions. Be sure to check in on them on a regular basis, or at least visit your municipality’s website ahead of any outdoor excursion.

If the air quality is particularly bad, avoid any strenuous outdoor activity like running or outdoor chores. The harder that you work while you’re outside, the deeper unsavory air particles are absorbed into your lungs. Remember, you can’t prevent a wildfire (or stop one) all on your own. But, with the right information and preparation, you should be able to mitigate some of their negative effects. Stay safe out there!

Christopher Brown