Smoke Danger From California Wildfires
Health Hazards From Smoke Particularly Affect Young, Old, Those With Lung Conditions
WebMD News Archive
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
Are You Smoke-Sensitive?
Some people are more susceptible to the effects of smoke and other
particulates, Gilliland and others say. Not surprisingly, the very young and
very old tend to be more susceptible, as do those with respiratory problems
such as asthma. But surprisingly, Gilliland and his colleagues have found that
susceptibility isn't limited to those who have asthma and other airway
In research conducted after the California wildfires in 2003, Gilliland's
team surveyed more than 6,000 elementary and high school students in
communities affected by wildfires and found that those who didn't have asthma
tended to have stronger symptoms from the smoke exposure than those who did,
perhaps because those who had asthma took more precautions such as staying
indoors during the fires.
Their study was published in 2006 in the American Journal of Respiratory
and Critical CareMedicine.
Genetic makeup plays a role, Gilliland says. A genetic variation found
in about half the population increases the risk of airway sensitivity,
Gilliland tells WebMD, citing research.
Steps to Reduce the Health Hazards of Smoke
Simple measures can go a long way to reduce exposure to the particulate
matter. "If you are driving through the [fire-stricken] areas, keep
your windows closed and your air conditioners on 'recirculate' instead of
outdoor air," says Anthony Gerber, MD, a volunteer spokesman for the
American Lung Association of California and an assistant professor of medicine
at the University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine.