Wildfires, extreme heat causing health harms

An uptick in extreme heat and wildfires around the world, driven by climate change, is leading to more illness and more deaths, according to experts.

In a November 24, 2021 article in Nature, Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population and Data Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted that wildfire smoke contains fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, that can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. She said that no amount is safe to breathe, noting that wildfire smoke can predispose people to infectious diseases or worsen existing respiratory conditions, such as COVID-19 and flu.

In an August 2021 study, Dominici and her colleagues found that thousands of COVID-19 cases and deaths in California, Oregon, and Washington between March and December 2020 may have been due to increases in PM2.5 from wildfire smoke.

The Nature article noted that, close to a fire, PM2.5 can sometimes reach levels more than 15 times greater than the 24-hour exposure standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, putting firefighters at great risk. “This level is outrageously high,” said Dominici. “At that point, you’re just breathing a toxic soup.”

Dominici also commented on another study she co-authored about the dangers of extreme heat, in a November 25, 2021 Cosmos article. The study, conducted with colleagues at Boston University, found that days of extreme heat were linked with a higher risk of emergency department visits among adults of all ages.

Read the Nature article: How record wildfires are harming human health

Read the Cosmos article: Extreme heat increases health risk for everyone