Smoke Danger From California Wildfires
Health Hazards From Smoke Particularly Affect Young, Old, Those With Lung Conditions
Oct. 24, 2007 (Burbank, Calif.) -- Skies in Southern California have an
eerie, dirty look as smoke spews from the numerous wildfires that began raging
Sunday and may still be days from containment.
Where there is smoke, there are health hazards, experts warn, perhaps even
for healthy residents living miles from the fire zones.
"Even as far away as 20 miles, you can see some unhealthy effects of the
fire damage," says Zab Mosenifar, MD, a pulmonologist and director of the
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Women's Guild Pulmonary Disease Institute in Los
Angeles. A Malibu resident, Mosenifar awoke Tuesday morning to find his yard
and family cars covered in ash as the fire continued to blaze not far from his
Residents in fire zones and nearby areas are urged to take
precautions, pay attention to symptoms that may be related to smoke exposure,
and check the air quality in their immediate vicinity before spending any time
outdoors, especially when exercising, Mosenifar and other experts tell
Particle Size Determines Risk
Smoke from wildfires includes small particles of ash and other substances,
water vapor, and gases such as carbon monoxide. The sizes of these particles
affect the body differently, Mosenifar tells WebMD. Larger particles generally
can't get into the nose and upper respiratory tract, he says, although they
might irritate the eyes, outside of the nose, mouth, and skin.
But smaller particles -- those so tiny they are about 30 times smaller than
the diameter of a human hair --can easily get into your respiratory system, he
says. And there they can cause irritation in the lungs, runny noses, burning
eyes, and aggravate existing heart and lung problems such as emphysema, asthma,
and congestive heart failure.
While the bigger, heavier particles drop to the earth as the smoke billows
out from the fire, the smaller particles can travel some distances, he says,
depending on winds, temperatures, and other factors. "If you live 15
or 20 miles from a fire, you are still exposed to particles, but the particle
size is smaller," he says.
How to Gauge the Smoke Danger
Use your senses to gauge the level of pollution from smoke exposure, says
Frank Gilliland, MD, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the University of
Southern California Keck School of Medicine, who studied the health effects of
the 2003 California wildfires on children. "We tell people if they can
smell smoke, it's at very high levels. They should use their own senses to tell
them what they should be doing [in terms of outdoor activity]."
If people feel eye or throat irritation while outdoors, Gilliland tells
WebMD, "they ought to alter their activity [and exercise indoors]
until the levels abate."
Paying attention to symptoms -- and taking precautions such as exercising
indoors -- is advised for a period of time after the fire is out, he adds.
Those living in the California wildfire zones are probably wise to take
precautions for two weeks, he says, depending on how quickly the smoke