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Scientists Study The Long Term Health Effects Of Wildfire Smoke : Shots

Smoke blankets Mill City, Oregon, which was evacuated for days following the nearby Beachie Creek Fire.

Nathan Rott/NPR


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Nathan Rott/NPR

Smoke blankets Mill City, Oregon, which was evacuated for days following the nearby Beachie Creek Fire.

Nathan Rott/NPR

Ariel Kinzinger had a headache. Clark Brinkman coughed and wheezed. LaNesha Collins, feeling physically fine, was frustrated by another day mostly trapped inside looking out at a sepia sun, in Portland, Ore.

“I’ve never been in the thick of smoke like this,” said Collins, an Oregonian like the others. “It’s insane.”

In recent weeks, tens of millions of Americans have lived and breathed through a thick haze of wildfire smoke. In places, it lasted for weeks. The immediate health effects of that are well known to the medical community and anyone who’s been exposed: Eyes sting, throats tighten, snot can turn black.

Respiratory problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be exacerbated, causing spikes in hospital visits. And recent research on the link between wildfire smoke and the flu, even suggests it could increase a person’s risk of contracting COVID-19.

Much less is known though about what happens after the smoke clears.

“Every person who asks me is like, ‘What does this mean for my health a long time from now?,'” says Colleen Reid, a geographer at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies the health impacts of wildfire smoke. “And unfortunately we don’t really know.”

The lack of data and information on the long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke is a hole scientists and epidemiologists are quickly trying to fill. Research teams are looking at long-term lung function after smoke exposure, and potential impacts on pregnant women and infants. These efforts have been slowed by the pandemic, but have taken on new urgency with recent events.

Record-breaking wildfires, like those the West Coast has experienced this year, have become a near-annual occurrence. Human-caused climate change is increasing the length and intensity of fire season globally. More people are moving to fire-prone areas. And there’s a growing understanding among land managers and the public that more “good fire” is going to be needed across broad swaths of the U.S. to chip away at a century’s worth of accumulated vegetation in some Western forests. All of this means more people are going to be exposed to smoke more frequently in the future.

“The paradigm’s changing where a [smoke event] is not just this one-time disaster for many communities in the West,” says Sheryl Magzamen, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University. “They’re actually chronic disasters that occur every two to three years.”

Smoke travels far

Days of thick smoke are not a new occurrence in many Western communities. But the breadth and duration of the smoke generated by this year’s fires is without modern precedent.

An NPR analysis of air quality data on the West Coast found that 1 in 7 Americans have experienced at least a day of unhealthy air conditions during this

Front Range Smoke, Pollution And Coronavirus: What To Know

Smoke from the Cameron Peak and Mullen wildfires continues to flow into the Front Range, and the fine particulates can increase people’s susceptibility to severe illness from the coronavirus, public health officials said.

The smoke can be harmful to everyone, but it’s particularly damaging for seniors, children and those with heart and lung conditions — the same people who are also at added risk from COVID-19, health officials said.

Smoke sensitivity can also mimic coronavirus symptoms, Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference Friday.

“There are a lot of folks who might have symptoms and think it’s the fires — it’s the air, and in many cases they might be right, but you need to know, because the initial symptoms are similar — shortness of breath, cough, difficulty breathing,” Polis said.

“All of those issues that are often associated with the historically poor air quality often are those early symptoms of coronavirus, and it’s important to get tested,” the governor said.

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Coloradans are asked to avoid prolonged exertion outdoors when the air quality is poor, health officials said.

Smoke is influenced by wind and weather and can remain at consistently unhealthy levels for many days.

>> The latest air quality forecasts and advisories for the Front Range can be found here.

This article originally appeared on the Denver Patch

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