Wildfires Are Getting Worse And Researchers Say They May Be Impacting Our Long-Term Health

Aug 2, 2021

This weekend air quality in the Spokane area reached unhealthy levels due to wildfire smoke. This summer air quality in Okanogan County briefly was the worst in the world due to wildfires.

“I was just looking at some data from counties that have been hit by fires, and this is one of the earliest starts to seeing high levels of pollution in some of those counties, specifically Okanogan County and to a slightly lesser extent, Stevens County," said Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist at the Department of Ecology.

Research has shown that increase in smoke has health consequences, both in the short and long term.

Chris Migliaccio, a researcher at the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana, is one of several researchers who recently published a study following a small community in Montana that experienced 49 days of either unhealthy or very unhealthy air quality in the summer of 2017.

He and other researchers examined community members the day after the smoke cleared, one year later and two years later.

Migliaccio said health tests the day after unhealthy air quality days showed study participants’ lung functionality tested similarly to other people their age. But when researchers conducted the same tests one, and two years later, participants lung functionality was lower than other people in their age group.

“We haven’t been able to go back since the pandemic, so we have no idea if this is persisting, or if people are starting to finally rebound, we know at least it was delayed, and has lasted two years, post exposure," he said.

Migliacchio also studies wildfire smoke's impact on lungs' ability to fight off disease, and said research has shown that people exposed to wildfire smoke are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses.

“There’s a lot to suggest that as you were saying, this type of exposure, especially in the summer months, can have an adverse effect when we get into the winter, and flu, and there has been working that shows high PM levels can affect people’s susceptibility to COVID," he said.

There are some actions, such as a box fan filter or staying indoors, that can protect people from some of the impacts of wildfire smoke.

Julie Postma, a professor at the Washington State University College of Nursing, is studying ways to communicate risks from smoke. She said people in the West may also need to think about longer term ways to address smoke, such as preparing for evacuation or gathering books and games to prepare for long stints indoors.

“We have to start getting creative about that I think, because this is not going away," she said.