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Unprecedented wildfires have been raging along the West Coast for more than a week.
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in Washington, Oregon, and California, and even those who don’t live near a fire have been trapped inside for days due to hazardous air from the smoke blanketing the coast.
Pollution levels skyrocketed across all three states last week, making the air outside unsafe to breath and rivaling the most polluted cities in the world. Forecasts don’t expect the air to clear significantly until later this week.
A growing body of research shows smoke can damage the lungs, blood vessels, and immune system, leaving people more vulnerable to respiratory illness. So when flu season arrives, the lingering effects of the poor air could exacerbate twin outbreaks of flu and COVID-19.
“That’s something that we need to watch carefully,” Perry Hystad, an environmental epidemiologist and associate professor at Oregon State University, told Business Insider. “Because there is this evidence in terms of air pollution suppressing the immune system and making individuals more susceptible to the flu and, of course, potentially coronavirus.”
Wildfire smoke is terrible for your lungs
The most hazardous thing about wildfire smoke is the tiny particulate matter it carries — specifically, particles that measure no more than 2.5 micrometers across (that’s about 30 times smaller than a human hair). These are known as PM2.5.
When humans inhale smoke, these particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream. Research has connected PM2.5 pollution to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and premature death. In healthy people short-term, it can irritate the eyes and lungs and cause wheezing, coughs, or difficulty breathing.
“There’s a lot of research on what wildfires can do, or what air pollution does, to the lungs,” Stephanie Christenson, a pulmonary and critical care physician at the University of California, San Francisco, told Business Insider.
That research shows PM2.5 particles can damage the lining of the lungs and cause inflammation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that it can “make you more prone to lung infections,” since any breach in the lungs’ lining offers more opportunities for a virus to infiltrate.
Smoke can also impact the heart and blood vessels: Many studies have linked wildfires to increases in heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. That’s probably because when PM2.5 particles get into the blood, they can cause inflammation and clotting. Blood pressure can also rise just from the stress of living in an apocalyptic, sepia-toned haze (not to mention the difficulty of evacuating your home).
One study looked at more than 670,000 ambulance dispatch calls during five wildfire seasons in British Columbia, Canada, and found an increase in respiratory and cardiovascular issues within just one hour of a rise in PM2.5 pollution.
“Around the time of wildfires, we actually get more patients going into the hospitals with severe respiratory complaints like pneumonias,” Christenson said. “There’s actually a higher mortality rate after wildfires that we think [is] due to …read more
Source:: Business Insider