Learn about the EPA's app, toolkit, research and continuing education course, all of which aim to improve public health during times of wildfire smoke. Photo: Pedestrians wearing N95 masks to better tolerate the smoke from the Camp Fire. Credit: Bastian Greshake Tzovaras shared via Flickr Creative Commons

Wildfire Smoke Resilience Resources from the EPA

By: Alan Vette, Environmental Protection Agency, Air and Energy National Research Program

Topic: Communications / Outreach Wildfire

Type: Tools / Resources

Who is Most at Risk?

As many of you know and have experienced, emissions of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from wildfire smoke are increasingly exceeding safe levels. Smoke from wildfires can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, while also worsening lung and heart disease. High levels of air pollutants can be particularly dangerous for older adults, young children and pregnant women. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Million Hearts program recognizes PM2.5 as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Visits to clinics and hospitals during wildfires are increasing. According to a 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others, pollution from smoke was linked to an average of 5,200–8,500 hospital admissions per year (for respiratory conditions — there were another 1,500–2,500 admissions per year for cardiovascular conditions). Moreover, the number of people exposed to wildfire smoke is projected to increase as more people live in areas that are increasingly at risk for wildfires, according to a 2005 study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others.

To assist with the growing concerns and risks associated with wildfire smoke, the EPA has designed a suite of resources that aim to improve public health outcomes when smoke occurs. These resources are accessible through the EPA’s online Smoke Ready Toolbox and the multi-agency AirNow website. On the latter, users can obtain smoke advisories, access the current and forecasted Air Quality Index and view a map of current fire locations. In addition, outreach materials are available on both sites regarding how to prepare for wildfire smoke and reduce one’s exposure.

This infographic, available through the “Smoke Ready Toolbox for Wildfires,” provides information about reducing smoke exposure and wearing a respirator. Click on the image above to access the toolbox.

The Smoke Sense App

Smoke Sense is a citizen-science study using a mobile-device app that maps current wildfire locations, while also providing current and forecasted air-quality measures. Users can anonymously report their personal health symptoms and observations in the app. This study aims to increase our understanding of how exposure to wildfire smoke impacts public health. EPA researchers want to better understand what people can do to protect their health during smoky conditions and what can be done to better communicate health risks. One of my colleagues relied on  Smoke Sense for smoke and health information while in California during the Camp Fire. The app came up in many of his conversations about the smoky conditions, and many people downloaded it after he demonstrated its capabilities. You can read his reflections about the app in his blog, Using the Smoke Sense App During the Camp Fire in California.

Smoke Sense App logo

Access the “Smoke Sense” app through your mobile device’s app store,* or read more about it by clicking on the logo above. Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

Resources for Public Health Officials and Practitioners

Screenshot of the cover to the Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials

“Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials” was designed to help public health officials communicate the risks and recommendations associated with smoke events.

To help public health officials communicate smoke risks and recommendations, the EPA developed Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials (PDF, 2.03MB). This guide was developed in partnership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the USDA Forest Service, the California Air Resources Board, the California Department of Public Health and the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment. It outlines which populations are most impacted by smoke, how to reduce exposure, and other public-health recommendations.

For physicians, nurses and other health professionals, the EPA offers the Particle Pollution and Your Patients’ Health course online. It focuses on what can be done to prevent and mitigate harmful health effects from smoke exposure, particularly for people with heart and lung disease. Continuing education credits are available through the CDC for public health professionals.

Additional Research

EPA scientists and others are conducting studies to advance the understanding of health effects from wildfire smoke exposure, who is most at risk, and what strategies and approaches are most effective at mitigating those risks. We look forward to sharing these results with wildfire practitioners and public health officials alike.

You can learn more about our wildland fire research on our website, or by following us on Twitter and Facebook.

Alan Vette profile pic

Credit: Environmental Protection Agency

Alan Vette has a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry from West Virginia University and a Master of Science and doctorate in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. He has been with the EPA since 1999 as a research scientist. For more than 10 years, he focused on determining the impact of air pollutants on human health. He was also the assistant laboratory director for Air, Climate and Energy (ACE) research in the EPA’s National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory from 2010–2014, where he provided oversight to the research on human and environmental effects of air pollutants, climate change, as well as conventional and alternative sources of energy. Following this, he was the deputy national program director for ACE (2014–2017). He is currently the acting national program director for the Air and Energy Research Program.

*Editor’s note: Smoke Sense is temporarily unavailable for download on Apple’s App Store but is still functional on devices that already have it downloaded. Check back for updates on availability.


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4 thoughts on “Wildfire Smoke Resilience Resources from the EPA”

  1. Wesley Keller says:

    I attended the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Compact meeting this past week. During one of the presentations the statement was made that world wide, there is a large number of fatalities related to wildfire smoke. The number was in the hundreds of thousands range.
    I was not able to meet with the person making the presentation as I hoped, but I would be interested in hearing more if someone has read that report, or knows where I can locate that information.

  2. Mary Huffman says:

    Hi, all. One resource is an academic article by Johnston et al. published in 2012. Here’s the summary.

    Citation: Johnston, F. H., et al. (2012). “Estimated global mortality attributable to smoke from landscape fires.” Environmental Health Perspectives 120(5): 695-701.

    Background: Forest, grass and peat fires release approximately two petagrams of carbon into the atmosphere each year, influencing weather, climate, and air quality. Objective: To estimate the annual global mortality attributable to landscape fire smoke (LFS).

    Methods: Daily and annual exposure to particulate matter < 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) from fire emissions was estimated globally for 1997-2006 by combining outputs from a chemical transport model with satellite-based observations of aerosol optical depth. In World Health Organization (WHO) subregions classified as sporadically impacted, the daily burden of mortality was estimated using previously published concentration-response coefficients for the association between short-term elevations in PM 2.5 from LFS (contrasted with 0 μg/m3 from LFS) and all-cause mortality. In subregions classified as chronically impacted, the annual burden of mortality was estimated using the American Cancer Society study coefficient for the association between long-term PM 2.5 exposure and all-cause mortality. The annual average PM 2.5 estimates were contrasted with theoretical minimum (counterfactual) concentrations in each chronically impacted subregion. Sensitivity of mortality estimates to different exposure assessments, counterfactual estimates, and concentration-response functions was evaluated. Strong La Niña and El Niño years were compared to assess the influence of inter-annual climatic variability.

    Results: Our principal estimate for the average mortality attributable to LFS exposure was 339,000 deaths annually. In sensitivity analyses the interquartile range of all tested estimates was 260,000 to 600,000. The regions most affected were Sub-Saharan Africa (157,000) and Southeast Asia (110,000). Estimated annual mortality during La Niña was 262,000 compared with 532,000 during El Niño.

    Conclusions: Fire emissions are an important contributor to global mortality. Adverse health outcomes associated with LFS could be substantially reduced by curtailing burning of tropical rainforests, which rarely burn naturally. The large estimated influence of El Niño suggests a relationship between climate and the burden of mortality attributable to LFS.

  3. Inga La Puma says:

    Hi Wesley, I gave the presentation and actually explained the statistic the next morning because I had received a few questions about it. The study quoted above by Mary Huffman is in fact the study that the statistic in the presentation came from. I explained that most of the smoke related causes of death were from SE Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. I also mentioned that the North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange leadership invites these types of questions and we are here to help investigate the science behind the stats. We all need to know the research behind the stats to make informed decisions. Hope that helps.

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