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Study details deadly longterm effects of wildfire smoke in California

Study details deadly effects of wildfire smoke in California
Study details deadly effects of wildfire smoke in California 04:32

A new study estimates tens of thousands of people in California died premature deaths due to wildfire smoke from 2008 to 2018.

The study, conducted by researchers at UCLA and published in Science Advances, found particulate matter (known as PM2.5) from wildfires led to 52,500 to 55,700 deaths with an associated economic impact of $432 billion to $456 billion.

"The large, growing impacts of wildfires on air pollution along with the mortality and economic burden presented here raises questions about societal investments in wildfire prevention and management," the study states. 

The study estimated 2,305 people died in Sonoma County from 2008 to 2018 due to wildfire smoke. The study also estimated 2,231 deaths in Santa Clara County, 2,063 deaths in Contra Costa County, and 2,057 deaths in Alameda County.

Dr. Thomas Dailey, who works in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Kaiser Permanente's Santa Clara Medical Center, said particulate matter comes from burning a solid material, which includes wildfires or cigarette smoke.

"The problem with a particle that small - you can fit 40 of them across the human hair - is that they not only embed in the lung and cause irritation of the lung, trigger breathing problems in patients with asthma, patients with emphysema/COPD, and young children with lungs that are still forming, but they can actually be inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream," Dr. Dailey said. "We see, statistically, and increase in incidents in heart attacks and strokes in our emergency departments (through air pollution). So these are very irritative, very small particles that could cause damage wherever they go in the body."

Dr. Dailey recommended wearing a N95 mask during days with poor air quality, but warned it wouldn't completely protect anyone from particulate matters.

"N95's protect against 95% of particulate matter from coming through when breathing. It's important to realize that's not 100%. N95 masks in smoke exposure is designed for firefighters to wear because they have to be in that exposure. For first responders to wear... This is not designed for somebody to say, 'Oh, the air quality is poor. I'm going to put on my N95 mask and go jogging today.' You're still exposing yourself to 5% of particulate matter," Dr. Dailey said. "If 'unhealthy air' is like smoking one pack of cigarettes a day, well then 'unhealthy for sensitive groups' is like smoking three-quarters of a pack. 'Moderate' air pollution is like smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day. There is no such thing as healthy air pollution."

Dr. Dailey also encouraged residents to ensure homes aren't exposed to outside air, as polluted air could creep into homes and apartments.

"If you're smelling smoke, you're inhaling particles," he said. "This is going to keep happening and we really need to prepare for this as a society. As we see climate change affect us, one of the things that is being affected is more and more wildfires. What we've also seen is that even if you are not in an area immediately adjacent to the fires, the smoke can travel hundreds of miles - if not further."

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