What We Don't Know About Wildfire Smoke Should Scare Us

Lydia O'Connor
·2-min read

Plumes of wildfire smoke around California have left the state with air quality so bad in some areas that it was literally off the charts. Even in cities hundreds of miles away from the blazes, the smoky air has been so unhealthy to inhale that officials warned against anyone going outside.

There’s clear consensus that wildfire smoke is bad for us in the short term: It leaves people coughing and suffering from headaches and sore throats; it inflames some existing health conditions, such as asthma and heart problems; and it may even make a person more susceptible to COVID-19 symptoms. But when it comes to the long-term effects that wildfire smoke may have on people, the experts still have a lot more questions than answers.

“Unfortunately for all of us, we’re all research subjects,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, a principal investigator at the Public Health Institute and a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “[There are] a lot of people that are being exposed repeatedly to wildfire smoke, so we’re going to know a lot more in the coming years.”

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is seen under a smoke-filled sky due to various California wildfires earlier this month. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is seen under a smoke-filled sky due to various California wildfires earlier this month. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

No communities have been more of a test subject than those across California, especially Butte and Lake counties in the northern part of the state. Foothill towns in those areas have seen massive fires year after year as climate change drives record-high temperatures and severe droughts.

The outstanding question, Solomon said, is whether particulate matter ― the dangerous mixture of tiny particles and liquid droplets in the air ― in wildfire smoke is just as toxic as the air tainted by cigarettes, tailpipes and other year-round pollutants.

“If wildfire smoke particulate matter behaves just like other particles, then the picture is not good for for long-term health,” she said. Exposure to particulate matter from air pollution reduces lung function, and it’s especially harmful for children since their lungs are still developing, she added.

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