The drought in the western United States and Canada has reached critical proportions, easily evident in the cracked, parched ground and the shrinking lakes and rivers. But health experts remind us that citizens of the west are most likely to be impacted by the hazy skies. The problem is the particulate pollution that results from dust off the earth, but also from the forest fires sparked by long periods of dry heat and occasional lightning strikes.
The combustion byproducts in smoke often drift hundreds of miles through the atmosphere, crossing the borders between cities and states, and even countries. Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy for the American Lung Association, says five years of extreme drought has greatly exacerbated the wildfire situation.
These particles are very small, about 1/30th the size of a human hair. But they can have a huge negative effect on the body, Nolen explains.
They are so tiny that they bypass the body’s natural defense systems and lodge deep in the lungs, and some of them are so tiny they can actually pass through into the blood system. Because of their size, and because of the way they affect the body, they can have profound health implications. They can kill people. They can shorten lives by months to years. They can cause asthma attacks, heart attack [and] stroke.
Researchers also fear particle pollution can cause low birth rates, and affect the central nervous system and reproductive system. And in 2013, the World Health Organization said that particle pollution causes lung cancer.
A report released in April by the American Lung Association determined that approximately 24 million people live in counties with “unhealthful year-round levels of particle pollution.” These record highs correlate to the drought, and they were found to be particularly acute in Phoenix, Arizona; Reno, Nevada; Visalia, California; the greater San Francisco-Oakland area, especially San Joaquin County; Yakima, Washington and Fairbanks, Alaska.
While there is some health risk to the general population, people with respiratory conditions are most likely to be affected, followed by children and the elderly. The ALA says girls’ lungs do not reach their full size until their late teens, and boys’ lungs continue growing until their early 20s.
Health experts recommend that people with asthma, cardiovascular disease, cardiopulmonary disease, and other types of bronchial or lung disease be alert to air quality conditions, by monitoring the air quality index on a daily basis. They may need to keep their inhalers with them, or on some days, to stay inside. Patients who are acutely distressed may need to relocate and stay with friends or relatives during the worst periods.
“Don’t count on a dust mask offering protection,” says Nolen. “Especially if you’ve got a lung disease, talk to your doctor.” She says masks do not protect against many smaller particulates.