Health Effects of Increasing Wildfires in the United States

Health Effects of Increasing Wildfires in the United States

by Hannah Van Dusen | Edited by Andrew Guo

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the United States has seen more wildfires in 2022 than in any other year in the past decade, with more than 56,000 fires burning through 7 million acres. With wildfires becoming increasingly present across the US, these disasters pose a major public health threat to residential communities, wildlife, and the environment. How exactly do these wildfires start and what can be done to mitigate their deleterious impacts on public health and safety?

Based on current governmental data, nearly 90% of wildfires are sparked by humans rather than by natural causes such as lightning strikes. Often, humans create wildfires through means such as arson, ignitions from malfunctions or improper usage of vehicles, firearms, explosives, fireworks, problems with power transmission through power lines, smoking, or railroad operation and maintenance issues, amongst other factors. Additionally, drier and hotter conditions from human-caused climate change are a major contributor to making the environment more prone to wildfires. In fact, wildfires and the climate exist in a vicious cycle. When wildfires burn, they release CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, which are stored in soil and organic matter, and these gasses then accumulate in the atmosphere and exacerbate climate change. Climate change then causes certain areas to become increasingly prone to wildfires through making various regions hotter and drier.

Wildfires pose serious public health threats, with the fires most commonly burning through both trees and the synthetic materials that make up homes. Through this process, wildfires release numerous kinds of toxic chemicals and compounds into the air, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene. Research has found that chronic exposure to wildfires can cause asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and increase risk for lung cancer, stroke, heart failure, and sudden death. The particles in the heavy smoke from wildfires are also particularly detrimental to children’s health and can be ten times as harmful to their respiration as other air pollutants. Moreover, scientists are especially concerned with particles in the air that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, known as fine particulate matter, or PM2.5. As a point of reference, human hair is 50-70 micrometers in diameter, making PM2.5 particles, which are the primary air pollutants in wildfire smoke, especially easy to breathe in. PM2.5 particulate matter has significant consequences for humans and wildlife, as these particles can get embedded in the lungs or remain in the bloodstream, leading to negative health effects. 

Scientists have continued to investigate the chronic effects of wildfire exposure, especially in western states of the US that are starting to experience more yearly fires. However, for many native tribes and residents in states like Nevada and California, where communities have been severely affected by wildfires and experience poor air quality, there is limited access to medical care. Prior research has found that 5.5 million Americans live in areas where it takes an hour or more to reach a pulmonologist, and many residents in Nevada and Montana fall in this category. These shortages in medical personnel speak to a growing issue that affects rural medicine: the tendency for physicians to train and practice in larger cities and, thus, the equivalent drainage of medical resources from small towns and communities. As a result, communities which normally experience a spike in respiratory hospitalizations after forest fires have limited access to the healthcare needed to treat the lung conditions that they are at risk for. The presence of wildfires is a significant matter that scientists predict will persist in the near future, with the UN forecasting that catastrophic wildfires could increase by 57% by the end of the century. However, as humans are the primary cause of wildfires, our society also has the means to mitigate these crises. Government actions like reducing the amount of fuel in fire-prone regions or implementing more effective climate policies are just some methods to combat wildfires. Moreover, supplying more pulmonologists in areas with vulnerable populations impacted by a rise in wildfires, in addition to encouraging people to be more conscious about their surroundings and interactions with the environment, can reduce the risk of fires and protect the health of various communities in the US.

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