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What are the health effects of wildfires and how can I protect myself?

People wearing masks as smoke fills the air in New York from wildfires in Canada.
People wearing masks as smoke fills the air in New York from wildfires in Canada. Copyright Yuki Iwamura/AP
Copyright Yuki Iwamura/AP
By Hannah Brown with AP
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Fallout from wildfire pollution in southern Europe and America could have an impact for years to come, according to public health specialists.

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Thousands of hectares of forest have been burned following record breaking temperatures across the world.

The European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS) reported in July that more than 170,000 hectares of forests have caught fire. It says that’s double the average recorded for the period between 2003 and 2022.

So far this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US reports that over 67 thousand hectares of forest have been burned.

It’s not just the charred remains of the landscape that are the lasting consequence, however.

Doctors say the fires can be associated with potentially serious health conditions in the short and long term.

What are the health effects of wildfires?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), smoke from wildfires is a mixture of hazardous air pollutants - like PM2.5, nitrogen dioxide, ozone or lead - which contaminate the air.

The WHO also says the toxic smoke affects the climate by releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Once those particles are deep in the lung, they can cause systemic inflammation, which can affect all other systems of the body," Colleen Reid from the University of Colorado Boulder says.

"The lung is right by the heart so there's evidence that air pollution exposure can affect cardiac health.”

According to Professor Frank Kelly, a specialist in environmental health and pollution at Imperial College London, the short term impacts of wildfires have been studied in the US and Australia.

He says we should be aware of all the dangers the wildfires pose, not just the immediate risk to life.

“One of the pollutants which you get emerging from major wildfires is carbon monoxide," says Kelly.

"And we know that this is a very dangerous pollutant at increased concentrations and it is well demonstrated that it can have impacts on cognitive function.”

According to Kelly we’re already seeing admissions to hospitals, but he expects the long term consequences will take years to emerge.

Though there isn’t a lot of research on the long term health damage caused by the fires, Kelly says environmental scientists can point to existing studies on urban pollution which have alerted doctors to illnesses such as heart defects and degenerative diseases.

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“There are many similarities. We're talking about small particles. We're talking about gases like oxides of nitrogen. We know these have long term effects,” he adds.

There are no wildfires near me, am I safe?

Pollution from wildfires can spread far beyond the blaze.

According to Kelly, “Emissions and pollutants which emerged from these wildfires … can be tracked up to hundreds of kilometres away.”

The central plume of smoke can carry the toxic substances high into the atmosphere and be transported to other areas.

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How can I protect myself from wildfire pollution?

In the most dangerous, smoke-exposed areas Reid recommends wearing protective masks if you have to be outside. Make sure it’s not a surgical mask as those are to protect others from what you breathe out, like many of us wore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead she recommends N95 or KN95 masks which protect you from the air around you.

Kelly also says people in the riskiest areas should try to stay indoors. To prevent smoke or dangerous emissions coming into buildings, he suggested keeping doors and windows closed.

The WHO says the growing frequency and severity of large scale wildfires are expected to increase with climate change.

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So understanding the risk from smoke has never been more important.

“The issue is increasingly serious. We're seeing more of these wildfires. We're seeing the wildfire season increasing in length, starting earlier, ending later, the fires are becoming more intense, more frequent," says Kelly.

"So this is only going in one direction and unfortunately for health, both of ourselves and the rest of the living species on this planet, it's not a good direction of travel.”

Watch the video above to learn more about the health effects of wildfires.

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Video editor • Hannah Brown

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