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Behind the Forecast: How wildfire smoke can be dangerous to your health

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 10:17 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Wildfires have been raging across parts of the western United States and Canada for a significant portion of 2021. Their smoke has drifted across the entire United States, reducing air quality in many areas, including Kentucky and Indiana.

Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.
Particulate matter (PM) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

A January 2021 study found that, during a large fire, wildfire smoke can be responsible for 25% of the dangerous air pollution across the country.

The smoke from each wildfire is unique; the smoke is made of the trees, buildings, and other objects that the fire has burned. All this can produce harmful pollutants, from tiny particulates to cancer-causing substances.

According to experts, fine particulate matter made of solid and liquid droplets from whatever has burned comprises 80% of wildfire smoke. These particulates can be as small as 2.5 microns (also known as PM2.5) which can penetrate the lungs, lead to respiratory issues, and even get into the bloodstream. To put that size into context, the width of human hair can range from 50 to 70 microns. When something as small as 2.5 microns enters the body, it can trigger an immune response, similar to your body fighting a virus.

While those in good health usually only deal with minor eye and throat irritation, widespread smoke can cause significant problems for those with respiratory and heart issues. Here’s a list of some of the health issues that wildfire smoke could potentially cause:

Wildfire smoke can cause the following:

  • Watery or dry eyes
  • Persistent cough, phlegm, wheeze, scratchy throat, or irritated sinuses
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath, asthma attack, or lung irritation
  • An irregular heartbeat, chest pain, or fatigue
  • Nonfatal and fatal heart attacks
The small particulates in smoke can cause serious health issues.
The small particulates in smoke can cause serious health issues.(Climate Central)

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