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New research finds building evidence for the long-term health effects of wildfire smoke

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This summer, wildfire smoke turned skies across the country orange. The smoke caused lots of health problems, and scientists are looking at how it can affect our health long after the smoke floats away. NPR's Alejandra Borunda joins us now, and she's been following some of the latest research on this. Alejandra, thank you so much for coming on the show.

ALEJANDRA BORUNDA, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: So human-caused climate change is making wildfires more intense, more frequent, which means there's a lot of smoke in the air. So what are the short-term impacts of all this smoke?

BORUNDA: So there is a ton of research looking at the short-term impacts of smoke, plus everyone's own experience, right? It does not make you feel good. And that's partly because smoke particles are really, really small. Like, we're talking 30 times smaller than a human hair. That means they can get deep into your lungs and even cross into your bloodstream, and that sets off all kinds of issues - definitely lung issues like asthma, but also heart problems and much more. I talked to Sheryl Magzamen. She's an air pollution expert at Colorado State University, and she's really worried that we don't talk enough about the health impacts of smoke.

SHERYL MAGZAMEN: We call the smoke episode a silent epidemic, or it's a silent disaster because people aren't worried about losing their lives, per se. But it doesn't have that same dramatic impact as watching a city burn - right? - or watching a forest burn.

BORUNDA: When it's smoky, ER visits for asthma and other lung problems go through the roof. But it's not just breathing issues. The number of heart attacks goes up. Strokes go up. People's sleep gets worse. The list really, really goes on and on.

RASCOE: So what do we know about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke on people?

BORUNDA: Yeah, so that's a really big question that researchers are just starting to understand. There's one study that looked at people from Montana who breathed in 49 straight days of wildfire smoke. Two years later, they still didn't have full lung capacity back. And there are even longer-term issues. I called up Emily Grant. She's a public health expert at Washington State University. She says the consequences of breathing in the tiny flecks of smoke build up over time for organs like your heart.

EMILY GRANT: So when you have something mechanical, like your car, you do know it'll fail eventually. It's going to wear out. But if you do something like add terrible gas to it that deposits on the inside of it, then you can expect it to fail a lot faster.

BORUNDA: And we know about some of the long-term risks from looking at firefighters. For example, they have a much higher chance of developing lung cancer.

RASCOE: I mean, that is very alarming.

BORUNDA: Yeah, it is alarming. And that's not even the end of it. We're also seeing a lot of evidence growing that smoke can hasten or worsen brain diseases like dementia or Alzheimer's. And, I mean, quite honestly, science is just scratching the surface of this question of how wildfire smoke affects our long-term health. The gold standard for health research are these studies that follow people for years and years after exposure to something like a fire, and the health risks from wildfire smoke just haven't been on people's radars as a major problem for that long.

RASCOE: So we're told that wildfires are going to happen every year, and they're going to be in places people don't expect them, like Louisiana this summer. So what can we do to protect ourselves?

BORUNDA: This is really important. This is, like, the takeaway thing. If you can smell smoke, just don't go outside, if at all possible. And if you have to go out, try to wear an N95 mask or a KN95 mask and try to avoid exercising outdoors. But the big point here is to try your best to find clean air. Inside is better than outside, and if you can filter your air, even better. But, of course, the biggest thing is to slow down human-caused climate change by cutting the use of fossil fuels as fast as possible.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Alejandra Borunda who covers the intersection of health and climate change. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

BORUNDA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Alejandra Borunda