Fine Particles from wildfire smoke can hurt your body in ways you never dreamed of

11.29.18

BY CATHIE ANDERSON, canderson@sacbee.com

November 19, 2018 03:00 AM

 

Last year, as the Tubbs Fire scorched its way across Napa and Sonoma counties, environmental researchers at the University of California, Davis, fielded questions about the health impact of chronic exposure to smoke from a wildfire that torched trees and urban structures alike.

UCD’s Kent Pinkerton and Rebecca Schmidt and other researchers had the same questions. They sought studies on urban wildfires and found no answers.

“Everyone had concerns about their health and what was in the smoke,” said Schmidt, who studies how environmental exposures influence child development. “We just didn’t have any answers to those questions, and when we looked and searched to see what was out there, we really found there wasn’t much.”

Yet studies on air pollution do offer up clues to what happens when the human body is under assault from microscopic particles in the air, Pinkerton said. The UCD professor has spent decades studying the effects of air pollution on lung inflammation and disease.

Longer-term, Pinkerton said, the health of people breathing in smoke from the wildfires might well depend on the degree of their exposure and whether the microscopic particles floating in the air manage to worm their way deep into lungs and circulatory systems.

When exposed intermittently to bad air days, Pinkerton said, the average healthy person may experience irritated eyes, scratchy throats, a cough, maybe tightness of the chest, even wheezing. Other experts said people also report shortness of breath, headaches and nosebleeds.

Various hospitals around Northern California are reporting a slight uptick in emergency room visits by people experiencing respiratory issues: In Sacramento, that includes both Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Medical Center.

Other hospitals are seeing a surge of patients: In Sonoma County, emergency room doctors at St. Joseph health hospitals reported an influx of patients equal to what they saw when the Tubbs fire raged across their county last year.

“It isn’t so much about breathing the air that’s closest to the fire,” said Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Sonoma County for St. Joseph Health. “It’s being in the area that’s experiencing air quality issues. You don’t necessarily need to be living in Paradise to be having these issues. We’re actually seeing that play out in the volumes in our emergency departments. We’re seeing lots of folks with respiratory issues.”

Doctors urged residents to monitor air quality, either through government sites such as www.airnow.gov or www.sparetheair.com, or via local news media. Stay indoors as much as possible, said Dr. Nicole Braxley, medical director of the emergency department at Carmichael’s Mercy San Juan, and use N95 respirator masks when outdoors.

“Even if you’re a completely healthy person, there’s no reason to expose yourself to these particles,” Braxley said. “You might cause yourself harm.”

With progressive exposure to the wildfire smoke, Pinkerton said, healthy people tend to adapt to the conditions: Their eyes are not quite so irritated. They don’t necessarily have that scratchy throat anymore. They cough less and their throats aren’t as tight.

“When we have repeated exposures, our bodies hunker down,” Pinkerton said. “It says, ‘OK, I know this is a bad situation, so I’m going to make some changes.’ The changes are all subconscious. We may breathe a little less deeply. Our cells might be a little bit more responsive in terms of not putting up lots of inflammatory factors. The epithelial cells that line our airways would become tolerant, meaning they’re not so easily damaged.”  Does that mean there is no risk of longer-term damage to the body?

Actually, Pinkerton said, chronic exposures to fine particulates could elicit other responses.

For instance, there’s evidence that it can lead to asthma. In 1996, as the Olympics got underway in Atlanta, city officials acted to minimize the amount of traffic allowed within city limits, Pinkerton said, and there was a statistically significant drop in the percentage of people coming to emergency rooms with asthmatic symptoms.

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