The United States has been grappling with poor air quality as smoke from raging wildfires in Canada has spread across the country. While the resulting smoky skies may create visually stunning sunsets and sunrises, it is important to recognize the serious health implications associated with this phenomenon.
Regardless of pre-existing health conditions, the smoke can take a toll on a person's well-being. Here is an overview of what you need to know about this potentially dangerous issue.
Major cities such as New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte have been enveloped by thick smoke that has descended from Canada.
The wildfires in the Canadian province of Quebec have generated a vast amount of smoke, causing some of the most severe air pollution the eastern U.S. has witnessed in years. This smoke poses significant health risks, particularly for the most vulnerable groups of individuals.
The smoke emitted by wildfires contains microscopic particulate matter that can deeply penetrate the lungs when inhaled, eventually entering the bloodstream. Every year, thousands of people in the U.S. end up in hospitals due to smoke inhalation from wildfires.
These minute particles consist not only of smoke and ash from burning trees and grass but also of harmful fumes released from plastic and other substances. Due to their small size, they can migrate into the small air sacs in the lungs called alveoli.
Potential Health Impacts of Excessive Smoke Inhalation
Respiratory failure is a common consequence of inhaling excessive amounts of smoke. Exposure to carbon monoxide in the smoke can poison red blood cells and impede the uptake of oxygen, thereby increasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure to wildfire smoke can also trigger asthma attacks, heart failure, bronchitis, and reduced lung function. In addition to the lungs, other parts of the body, including the throat, oral cavity, and vocal cords, can be affected by this smoke.
Potential complications may include sinus issues, watery eyes, and the onset of coughing.
Children, the elderly, and individuals with underlying health conditions are particularly at risk. People with conditions such as cystic fibrosis, allergic rhinitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and congestive heart failure face an elevated risk of developing severe complications that require medical attention.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Smoke Inhalation
Given that residents of affected areas will inevitably be exposed to some level of smoke, it is crucial to be aware of symptoms that could lead to chronic health problems. Initial signs may manifest as a burning sensation in the nasal cavity and mouth, along with changes in voice, indicating irritation of the airway linings.
Other potential symptoms include increased coughing, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, scratchy throat, elevated heart rate, and a runny nose. Monitoring these symptoms closely is important, especially for individuals in the vulnerable groups.
Mitigating the Impacts
Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the effects of smoke exposure. The most important and impactful measure is to limit outdoor activities. Keeping all doors and windows closed creates a safe breathing space within homes.
Motorists should also keep their vehicle windows shut and set the air conditioning to recirculate mode to minimize smoke intake. Utilizing high-quality N95 masks, such as those used during the pandemic, can effectively filter out harmful particles.
While the U.S. has experienced a relatively mild wildfire season thus far, Canada has faced a different reality. As smoke knows no borders, it is crucial for Americans to be aware of the potential impacts. Monitoring local air quality levels closely and taking appropriate action to reduce smoke exposure are essential steps to safeguard one's health.