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Is Wildfire Smoke Dangerous for Health?

What is wildfire smoke, why is it dangerous for human health, and why has it been the subject of news the past week in Canada and the Northeastern coast of the United States?
Green News
2023-06-16T00:00:00.000Z
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Wildfire smoke is becoming so prevalent in our daily life, that even famous entertainers such as singers like Shawn Mendes are starting to incorporate the negative effects that these natural disasters have on our lives into their music and artwork – and while releasing a new song and offering to donate to the red cross is a good way to raise awareness, it's important to remember how effective it would be to work towards preventing wildfire smoke from occurring in the first place.

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Recently, wildfire smoke has taken over the skies of multiple cities: such as Toronto, Ottawa, New York City, Washington D.C., and more – all as a result of a wildfire that occurred across Canada.

What is wildfire smoke, why is it dangerous for human health, and why has it been the subject of news the past week in Canada, the Northeastern coast of the United States, and even the midwest?

forest fire and smoke in air

What is wildfire smoke?

Wildfire smoke is a mix of gasses and other particles that are emitted after vegetation and buildings are burned – most often, after a wildfire occurs. Wildfire smoke can cause even healthy people to get sick, when there is enough wildfire smoke present in the air. This is because breathing in wildfire smoke can result in the following:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Eye discomfort
  • A scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Sinus irritability
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

👉 Keep in mind that the symptoms of wildfire smoke are likely to vary depending on the age and health of the person being exposed to wildfire smoke – pregnant women, children, elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions remain most vulnerable to the effects of wildfire smoke. 

Ultimately, wildfire smoke has the ability to make even the healthiest of people sick – but wildfire smoke is most alarming for people who are susceptible or have pre-existing respiratory health conditions such as asthma. This is because when we breathe in wildfire smoke, it goes deeper into the lungs – ultimately affecting the respiratory system.

Most recently, wildfire smoke has taken multiple cities in Canada and the Northeast of the United States by storm.

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fire causing smoke in air near power lines

Is wildfire smoke bad for your health?

In short, yes – wildfire smoke is bad for your lungs and is especially dangerous for pregnant women, children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions. 

“Wildfire smoke is bad because it contains fine particles, otherwise known as PM2.5, which can produce toxic emissions when combusted.”

The health effects of wildfire smoke can range from mild to severe: with a light case of wildfire smoke exposure causing nothing more than more coughing than usual, whereas an acute case of wildfire smoke exposure could result in cardiovascular damage – to the extent where someone could have a heart attack. However, wildfire smoke most notably aggravates the lungs and can fuel lung cancer – especially those already susceptible such as someone with asthma, bronchitis,  or someone who already smokes. 

👉 Wildfire smoke is also composed of harmful elements and chemicals such as carbon monoxide and  nitrogen oxides – both of which aren’t good for the human body to inhale.

In addition to having an impact on the respiratory and the cardiovascular system, wildfire smoke can also result in decreased cognitive abilities – as decreased ability to breathe with ease can reduce the amount of oxygen being fed to the brain, causing people to feel “foggy” and not as sharp as usual.

Did you know? Wildfire smoke is responsible for almost 340,000 premature deaths every year.
bad forest fire in lush green area

How can people protect themselves against wildfire smoke?

Most often, the best way to prevent the side effects of wildfire smoke is to limit exposure – meaning if there’s been a wildfire, it’s best to stay inside for as long as possible. However, this isn’t always feasible as many people have lives to get to – so here are some tips to stay safe if wildfire smoke is currently present in your area.

  1. Watch the news for updates on air quality reports and updates about how to practice good safety measures in your area while you await the wildfire smoke to pass.
  2. Use air visibility guides if they’re available, especially if you plan on driving, as sometimes wildfire smoke can get so bad it becomes dangerous to drive – making wildfire smoke a driving hazard as well. 
  3. Stay indoors if it’s possible – remember to keep windows and doors shut until further notice, and run the air conditioner whilst keeping the air filter closed to make sure that particles from the wildfire smoke outside don’t end up inside your home. If you have no air conditioning and it’s too hot outside to stay put where you are, seek public shelter with air conditioning until the wildfire smoke warnings subside. 
  4. Filter the air in your home if it’s possible, especially if you have a respiratory or heart condition that could make you more susceptible to the negative effects of wildfire smoke. There is often an air filter setting for most air conditioning systems. 
  5. Wear a mask if you must go outside – if you have any masks laying around from the Covid-19 pandemic, this is a good time to pull them back out again. This is because wearing a mask can help to trap the particles which could threaten your lungs in the mask instead – similar to how wearing a mask helps prevent germs from entering your body. However, it is important to remember that wearing even a high quality mask shouldn’t serve as a replacement for staying inside and remaining safe from exposure from wildfire smoke. 
  6. Don’t burn anything else to aggravate the climate when wildfire smoke levels are already at a high – it is best to stay away from burning candles, fireplaces, or from having a barbecue during a wildfire smoke breakout. In addition to this, it’s best to prevent smoking as well – as this also contributes to air pollution. 
  7. Call your doctor if you have a health condition that makes you more vulnerable to wildfire smoke to ensure you stay safe and healthy. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
  8. Check the wildfire smoke conditions of your local park before heading out for any summer recreational activities like a soccer game, wedding, or graduation – as large parks or forests may be subject to wildfires themselves this season. 

👉 Ultimately, the best thing that people can do during a wildfire smoke breakout is to stay inside and away from poor air quality that could make them sick.

Are the skies of Toronto and New York City yellow because of wildfire smoke?

Following the wildfires, many pictures have been taken and plastered across the web showing a hazy and yellow New York City skyline – looking almost apocalyptic. 

Multiple cities have been affected by the wildfire smoke, all the way from Toronto to as far as Kansas city – but many have wondered why the wildfire smoke has altered the color of the sky so much, with some cities seeming milkier and darker than usual.

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Usually, sunlight comes down to Earth as a clear white beam that helps to produce ROYGBIV – or red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. However, when a wildfire occurs – particles of smoke end up being larger than the molecules that usually linger in the air and end up absorbing the blue, green, and purple hues we are used to seeing. Wildfire smoke can change how light is perceived and ultimately reflects different colors to us than we normally would view without wildfire smoke. 

👉 Think of the haze created by a campfire or someone barbecuing – the wildfires have had the same effect on the skies of entire cities.

What caused the wildfire smoke to occur?

The most recent wildfire smoke happened as a result of numerous wildfires that broke out across Canada – most notably the wildfires that happened north of Ottawa in Quebec and the wildfire outbreaks north of Calgary. 

These wildfires in Canada, resulting in the massive wildfire smoke seeping its way across the continent, has occurred as a result of human activity and changes to surrounding landscapes – which have made these areas more prone to wildfires.

As the wildfires across Canada run rampant, as this is expected to be one of the worst wildfire seasons in history for the country until August – the smoke from the wildfires in Eastern Canada are being pushed towards the U.S. and Canadian border due to high atmospheric pressure. 

extremely red forest fire

How were cities affected by the wildfire smoke?

Multiple cities in both Canada and the United States have been greatly affected by the subsequent wildfire smoke from the wildfires occurring in Canada – such as Toronto, Ottawa, New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. 

Many of these cities were under alert for air quality warnings – with people being advised to stay inside until further notice and remaining wary of the potential health effects of wildfire smoke. Wind patterns have revealed that the aftermath of the Canadian wildfires could last for several days – with people in many major midwest and northeast U.S. cities, in addition to the nearby Canadian cities, needing to remain vigilant of the current air quality before planning anything outdoors.

👉 In addition to threatening people on the ground, the deteriorated air quality from wildfire smoke has caused air traffic across the U.S. – with many flights experiencing delays due to the lack of visibility needed for flying.

firemen putting out forest fire

What are some ways to prevent wildfire smoke in the future?

The only surefire way to prevent wildfire smoke from occurring, is to lessen the likelihood of wildfires happening – something that has become common from California to Australia in recent years due to climate change.

While climate change ultimately holds the power to spur on the drastic wildfires that are causing wildfire smoke, there are still several things that humans can do to lessen the potential impact or occurrence of a wildfire.

For instance, one of the best ways to prevent a wildfire is to check drought conditions before choosing an area to have an activity. Common summer festivities such as fireworks for the 4th of July or a barbecue could easily facilitate a wildfire under the right weather conditions. Staying away from anything flammable is imperative and can help prevent a wildfire all together, which also helps to prevent wildfire smoke.

Taking care of your vehicles, various equipment, and keeping cars off of dry grass is also key – as the heat left behind the engines could easily spread further than you think and provoke future wildfires and wildfire smoke.

👉 Keeping anything that could cause a fire or even create heat away from dry vegetation is key to preventing wildfires.

At the end of the day, wildfire smoke is a serious health hazard as it could cause impaired respiratory system functioning and impact livelihood. 

Therefore, it is best to prevent wildfire smoke from even occurring – as it’s easier and more beneficial to prevent wildfires from happening in the future rather than to try and course correct a massive wildfire smoke outbreak like the one currently taking both the U.S. and Canada by storm.

What about Greenly? 

If reading this article about if wildfire smoke is dangerous for your health has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

Wildfires and the subsequent smoke is just one of the many surprising things to occur or be aggravated by in the midst of climate change, but don’t worry – Greenly is here to help. Book a demo with one of our specialists to learn more. 

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

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