June 16, 2000 DENVER-The winds that fan the flames of summertime wildfires also can distribute large plumes of thick smoke miles from the actual fire, causing lung and heart problems for those with chronic health problems.
“People closest to the fires are most at risk. That’s why individuals living and working in Los Alamos and local Colorado communities near Bailey were evacuated,” explains Lisa Maier, M.D., a physician in the Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at National Jewish Medical and Research Center.
But even those miles from a fire can suffer from health problems after inhaling particulates—microscopic pieces of ash or burned wood—found in wildfire smoke.
“The smaller particulates are going to be carried downwind,” she says. “Breathing the smoke will cause respiratory irritation, similar to that caused by air pollution.”
Symptoms of smoke inhalation—which can be present minutes after exposure—include irritation or a burning sensation in the airways and throat, and redness of the eyes, nose and throat. Inhaling smoke can trigger extreme physical reactions, such as headaches, dizziness, and burns, both internal and external. A healthcare provider should observe a person affected by smoke inhalation for at least 24 hours.
A person in the midst of a wildfire may have acute exposure to carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, gases created as a fire burns. If inhaled in large amounts, these gases can actually replace oxygen in the blood. “Effectively, you don’t have oxygen in your blood stream to supply the body’s organs,” she says.
People with respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease risk worsening symptoms when exposed to smoke from brush and forest fires. Those with underlying heart conditions, children and the elderly are at risk as well.
Preventing or limiting exposure to smoke is the best protection. If at all possible, people with respiratory and heart diseases should: ? stay indoors with windows closed, if safe; and ? take medications prescribed by your physician to control the disease.
But if authorities tell you to leave the area, do so. “If it’s recommended that you evacuate, evacuate,” Dr. Maier says. “You can be asked to evacuate not only because of the fire risks, but because the smoke is hazardous, too.”
Besides containing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, smoke may contain gases from manmade and natural products such as carpeting, plastics, wood, cotton and wool. Each is a potential health hazard to those with lung or heart diseases.
Long-term exposure to smoke may result in an asthma-like disease. “But if you’re miles downwind, the effects are probably reversible. If you have any doubt or questions about your condition, see your doctor,” Dr. Maier says.
People who do not have an underlying lung or heart condition most likely will experience irritant effects only—such as, burning eyes, dry throat and cough.
For more information about respiratory diseases and smoke inhalation, call LUNG LINE, (800) 222-LUNG, or e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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