SoCal Smoke Could Worsen Breathing Woes

Plumes of smoke from wildfires are seen above the Lake Arrowhead, Calif. area. More than a dozen wildfires blowing across Southern California since Sunday have injured more than 45 people, including 21 firefighters and forced the evacuation of more than 350,000 houses. (AP Photo/Pool, Jim Wilson)
AP Photo/Jim Wilson
Smoke from the Southern California wildfires has been choking the air for several days now and that could be dangerous for people with asthma and other breathing problems.

On The Early Show Wednesday, co-anchor Harry Smith spoke with Dr. James Dunford, who's supervising the triage operation at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, where many evacuees are staying. He's a professor of emergency medicine at the University of California-San Diego Medical Center, and the county's emergency medical director.

Dunford says the smoke has been increasing the severity of asthma and other types of breathing problems, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

"There has been an uptick (of breathing problems reported) in the last 36 hours," he told co-anchor Hannah Storm. " ... We watch a threshold for 911 responses in the city, and we're three standard deviations above what we would expect for this time of year, so we're seeing it across the entire county."

Dunford explained that winds are circulating dust, particulate matter and pollutants in the air. In addition to the forest fires, homes and chemicals are burning. These are all triggers that can worsen the condition of a person with any chronic breathing condition.

"The main problem," he said, "really, is what gets up into the air, basically it affects elderly and children disproportionately. It's this tiny little soot particles, .3 microns, smaller than anthrax bacteria that's floating in the air, and it get downs in the lungs and triggers respiratory problems for either young kids, who don't have a lot of reserve, asthmatic children, and the elderly with heart disease.

"It's primary (exacerbating) respiratory complications, especially triggering asthmatic events. Because this dust particle basically gets so deep in the lungs, it will aggravate the tiny little muscles in the airways and cause spasm and wheezing."

Dunford added that the usual advice, staying indoors, is fine but, "Unless the doors and the windows are really shut and they've got an air conditioning system re-circulating, it doesn't really do a lot. On the other hand, avoiding activity is really big, because if you're breathing five or ten times as fast by exercising, you're breathing 10 times the amount of dust into your lungs. So really, just taking it easy, staying indoors, those are the cardinal things."

For advice on minimizing the impact of smoke on people in the evacuation zone, and in general, here, and here.