Wildfires have raged in most of the western states and elsewhere this year. Arizona, California and Colorado have been particularly hard hit, and north of the border, the monumental Fort MacMurray fire in Alberta destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. And while wildfire is a part of nature, shaping ecosystems and renewing the land, government agencies make every effort to protect people and property from damage.
When we think about the dangers of forest fires, we mostly think about homes that are destroyed, injuries and fatalities when people can’t evacuate in time, and of course, the dangers to firefighters who risk their lives extinguishing these conflagrations. But the American Heart Association reminds us that even from a distance, wildfires can compromise the health of people—especially seniors—who are in the path of the smoke.
During last year’s wildfire season, the American Heart Association reported on an Australian studythat showed the air pollution from wildfires may increase the risk of heart problems for older adults. Study author Anjali Haikerwal, a doctoral candidate at Monash University in Melbourne, set out to examine the association between the risk of cardiac arrest and the tiny particles given off by wildfires—particles that are smaller than a speck of dust, and are usually not visible to the human eye.
Haikerwal found that during a wildfire event in Victoria, Australia, there was a 6.9 percent increase in cardiac arrests, especially among people older than 65. Seniors also experienced an increase in ischemic heart disease (heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries). Advised Haikerwal, “These particles may act as a trigger factor for acute cardiovascular health events. Do not delay seeking medical help if you experience symptoms of heart problems during smoke episodes from wildfires.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers advice for protecting these vulnerable seniors from smoke pollution:
- Check your local air quality reports. Your community may provide reports to the Environmental Protection Agency; check out the Airnow.gov website to look for current problems. InciWeb from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group also provides information about wildfire activity.
- Stay indoors if advised, and keep indoor air as clean as possible. Don’t use the vacuum cleaner—the CDC says vacuuming stirs up particles that are already in the house. Keep windows and doors closed. If you have air conditioning, use it, but keep the fresh air intake closed and clean the filter. If you don’t have AC and it’s too hot to be indoors with the windows closed, go to a designated evacuation shelter or somewhere else where the air is safe.
- Contact your doctor if you’re having trouble breathing, and evacuate the area if possible.
- Do not rely on paper “dust masks” for protection. The masks you buy at the hardware store only trap larger particles, such as sawdust.
Of course, we can all do our part by preventing wildfires from starting. Don’t burn trash or debris unless local regulations permit it. If you’re enjoying an outing away from the city, watch your campfire closely. And remind smokers to extinguish cigarettes with care.
Visit FEMA’s Ready.gov website to find much more information about protecting your family and home during wildfires.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise, reporting on research from the American Heart Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).