Photo Credit: 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. Photo by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras, shared via Flickr Creative Commons.
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.
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.
Resources for Public Health Officials and Practitioners
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.
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.
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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