Smoke Danger From California Wildfires
Health Hazards From Smoke Particularly Affect Young, Old, Those With Lung Conditions
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.
If you must go outdoors and it's smoky, wear a dust mask or hold a wet towel
over your face. Masks, available at some hardware stores and medical
supply stores, filter out particles of various sizes. Gerber worries that
masks may give a false sense of security. "You're not going to be fully
protected by wearing a mask," he says.
When indoors, keep on the air-conditioning if it's smoky outside and use the
recirculating setting if it's available, he says. Those with lung
conditions such as asthma should continue taking their medication and call
their doctor if their symptoms seem worse.
How Widespread Will the Effect of Smoke Be?
Predicting how far the smoke from California's wildfires will travel is
difficult, Gerber and others say. Winds can carry it farther, for instance, and
rain can dampen the spread.
"It could diffuse across the Mexico border," Gerber says of the San
Diego wildfire smoke.
"The most northern Mexico towns will be affected," agrees Mosenifar.
But he does not think neighboring states -- Arizona, Oregon, Nevada -- will be
affected by California wildfire smoke.