Experts Discuss How Wildfire Smoke Harms Human Health » Yale Climate Connections

Experts Discuss How Smoke From Wildfires Affects Your Health

In the summer of 2022, wildfires raged in the New Mexico mountains that ringed the valley where Marquel Musgrave lives. Musgrave’s Pueblo, Nanbé Owingeh, went into action. Community members gathered information and supplies to protect children and the elderly from the smoky air.

Musgrave described that experience and more during a November panel discussion hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication and Yale Climate Connections that focused on the health consequences of wildfire smoke. Musgrave joined Dr. Colleen Reid, professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, who shared recent research on the health effects of wildfire smoke inhalation. and dr Jeff Masters, Yale Climate Connections associate and meteorologist with a Ph.D. in Air Pollution Meteorology, stated that climate change is making wildfires and air pollution worse. The lecture was moderated by Dr. Kai Chen, assistant professor of epidemiology (environmental health) at Yale University.

Takeaways from the panel:

  • The weakest have much to teach: Wildfire smoke blanketed the community of Musgrave in 2020 as the COVID pandemic was in its infancy. The community already had high rates of asthma. Musgrave began by buying air purifiers for his community and then began making DIY air purifiers called Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, often referred to as CR boxes.
  • Communities care about each other: Musgrave said her community needed to step up to ensure people had access to information during New Mexico’s largest wildfire of 2022. Community members conducted awareness campaigns, taking CR boxes to evacuation shelters, measuring airflow and trying to reassure people were safe from COVID-19 and the smoke. Her and other frontline communities are also demanding climate justice and the return of land to indigenous care.
  • Wildfire smoke and respiratory diseases are clearly linked: Studies show that exposure to wildfire smoke is linked to aggravated asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD. Recent studies have also shown that smoke from wildfires can exacerbate respiratory infections such as influenza or tuberculosis.
  • Wildfire smoke can negatively affect birth outcomes: Reid said that in addition to respiratory illnesses, exposure to wildfire smoke has also been linked to low birth weight or preterm birth.
  • Wildfires harm mental health: Wildfires in general can be traumatic as evacuations and casualties cause stress and grief. Smoking can also lead to isolation when people are unable to spend time outdoors.
  • Access to smoke protection does not equal: dr Reid said people who work outdoors and live in poorly sealed homes aren’t as good at protecting themselves from smoke as others. Communities that have historically had high levels of pollution are also at greater risk of ill health when exposed to wildfire smoke.
  • Wildfire smoke is a growing problem in the western United States: Much progress has been made in reducing air pollution since the Clean Air Act, but the increase in large wildfires is undermining some of that progress. In the western US, wildfires now account for around 50% of all PM2.5, tiny pollution particles found in smoke. PM2.5 is believed to cause about 90% of all air pollution deaths.
  • Because of climate change there are more forest fires: The climate in the west has become hotter and drier and the region is expected to become more desert-like in the future. Between 1972 and 2018, California saw a fivefold increase in annual area burned due to hotter summers and less rainfall. Unusual jet stream behavior, also thought to be caused in part by climate change, plays a role in sustained hot and dry weather events in the West.
  • “We need to stop burning fossil fuels,” said Jeff Masters: Almost 9 million premature deaths from air pollution are believed to be linked to fossil fuel burning each year, and that number is set to rise with more wildfire smoke. But clean energy is getting a lot cheaper and there’s plenty of room for optimism.

Samantha Harrington, Associate Editor of Yale Climate Connections, is a journalist and graphic designer with a background in digital media and entrepreneurship. “Sam” is particularly interested in sharing… More from Samantha Harrington