The wildfires in California continue to burn in some areas, while others are left to return to the rubble and ashes that were once their homes. Many have a fear of fire itself — the unrelenting flames certainly do plenty of damage to property. But when it comes to your health, it’s not the flames that are problematic. It’s the smoke.
According to The Guardian, 41 have died so far from the fires, and over 200,000 acres and nearly 6,000 structures have burned to the ground. That death toll is expected to rise, too, due to the health complications the wildfires can cause.
The current air pollution can kill asthmatics
If you’re currently in the Bay Area, it’s highly advised you seek shelter, as the air quality is the worst it’s ever been. Fortune explains several counties in the area have reached a code orange hazard level from the Environmental Protection Agency. This means sensitive groups, like the elderly or children, and those who have respiratory conditions, should remain indoors.
And it’s not just asthmatics who should be careful — The Verge notes wildfires can worsen COPD, bronchitis, and pneumonia if you already have these conditions. Even if your lungs are typically fine, you may find yourself coughing up phlegm and having difficulty breathing.
Breathing in toxic-heavy metals can cause life-threatening damage
Residents up to 70 miles away from the flames are facing a serious threat to their health from the smoke. For those even closer, the air may be tinged with toxic heavy metals, New Republic explains. Tom Flannigan, spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, says metals like arsenic, cadmium, copper, and lead are likely to spread in tiny particles through the air.
In case you’re wondering what damage this can do, NORD explains inhaling toxic heavy metals can cause brain damage, anemia, low blood pressure, skin problems, and gastrointestinal damage, just to name a few.
The conditions can greatly affect your heart
It’s not just your lungs that are at risk — your heart can take some damage from wildfires, too. A study from the Journal of the American Heart Association says wildfire smoke can increase your odds of having heart problems, ThinkProgress says.
The study author, Anjali Haikerwal, says the tiny smoke particles can go deep into the lungs. Scientists found those above the age of 65 were most likely to develop heart disease or cardiac arrest from smoke.
And those who breathe in the smoke may be more likely to develop cancer
California residents exposed to smoke may have cancer to worry about in their future, too. The American Cancer Society classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic. You’re more likely to develop lung or bladder cancer due to exposure.
So, why is air pollution cancer-causing? It contains both small solid particles and liquid droplets, and these particles can bring chemicals deep into your body. Air pollution generally isn’t as big of a concern in the U.S., but the conditions in California are worrying.
Pregnant women should seek shelter from smoke immediately
Along with children and the elderly, pregnant women should stay out of the smoke as much as possible. Environmental Health Prospectives says a study following the 2003 California wildfires shows pregnant women in the area had babies with lower birth weights. Researchers found infants exposed to smoke in utero weighed about 6.1 grams less than those unexposed.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explains babies born with a low birth weight can have a range of complications. These include breathing problems, low oxygen levels, and a higher chance of sudden infant death syndrome.
Hospitals are straining to keep up
The fires stretched for hundreds of miles across California, which forced many hospitals in the area to shut down. The Los Angeles Times reports this has put extra strain on the medical centers that are available, as they’re trying to treat as many patients as possible. Unfortunately, some hospitals have even had to cancel appointments so the severely sick can get the help they need.
Currently, the hospitals open are treating asthmatics who are having trouble breathing and those seriously injured. And they’re running out of supplies, too, making matters even more troubling.
The cleanup in the aftermath can be deadly
Some California residents are able to return to their burned homes to start sorting through the wreckage. But as Dr. Karen Relucio tells The New York Times, “Your chemicals, your pesticides, propane, gasoline, plastic and paint — it all burns down to ash. It concentrates in the ash, and it’s toxic.” And wind and rain can carry the dangerous ashes into new areas, too.
Because of the number of communities affected, public health officials don’t expect the cleanup to happen quickly. In the meantime, those returning to their homes are advised to protect their eyes, lungs, and skin with proper clothing and masks if they’re going to sort through the rubble.
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