The local health effects of Washington's wildfires

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This past weekend, the Seattle skyline and crests of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains faded behind a hovering white haze. While the scene was unexpected to anybody new in the area, residents familiar with the seasonal occurrence of summer wildfires collectively sighed -- and coughed -- from the understanding that we were in the direct jet stream of the state’s raging fires, burning just over 200 miles northeast in Okanogan County.

Washington is now seeing the largest wildfires in its recorded history, burning over 875,000 acres and responsible for the deaths of three firefighters. The resulting smoke that we inhaled most likely carried with it a large number of pollutants.

The Spokesman-Review reported a region-wide air quality alert last week in the Spokane area, stating the smoke pushed the air quality index to 189, far above the 150 threshold that translates into air being too unhealthy to be breathed during strenuous activity.

By Sunday, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency deemed the air to be unhealthy for those with pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular problems, including the elderly and young children, in Marysville, Everett, and North Bend.

Recent fire-derived air pollution has been the worst in recent memory, said Catherine Karr, associate professor at the University of Washington and director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit (PEHSU). This is leading to health issues for some local residents.

“Historically when we’ve had wildfire air pollutants in Seattle we’ve seen an uptake, for example, in kids reported to the emergency department with asthma exacerbations.”

As in the case of this weekend, short-term exposure to the smoke comes with its share of health concerns. Smoke consists of small organic particles that can irritate and inflame a person’s lungs. Seattle’s particulate reading neared 100 on Sunday, and lowered to 40 by midday Tuesday. The numbers are relatively low compared to the Central Washington town of Omak, whose air quality ranks as “hazardous” and a particulate reading of 450 as of midday Tuesday. Omak is currently surrounded by wildfires.

Wildfire map, courtesy

The plumes can also carry dangerous gases such as CO, CO2, and other volatile organic compounds which are toxic to the body, such as formaldehyde and acrolein. And these byproducts can persist for hundreds of miles, depending on the magnitude of the fire, which is likely to worsen year after year from drier seasons induced by climate change.

“Kids who have asthma, or other underlying lung or heart conditions are going to be the most sensitive to air pollution effects, but otherwise healthy children may also notice a kind of burning sensation in the nose and throat, have eye irritation, coughing and wheezing,” Karr said. Amongst the vulnerable are babies delivered by mothers who were exposed to wildfire smoke during the term of their pregnancy. A 2013 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found those babies were born with lower birth weights.

The Northwest wildfires recently provoked the closure of recreational areas on the south side of Mount Adams in Washington and near Diamond Lake in southern Oregon. On Monday, Eastern Washington University canceled football practice due to poor air quality.

The fires may burn until the season changes and the state sees more rain and snowfall, fire spokesman Rick Isaacson told The Columbian. “We could see this go clear to the first of November.”

In the meantime, when Seattle encounters another day of haze, the PEHSU recommends that people stay indoors and avoid strenuous activity. If available, run an air-conditioner on the “re-circulate” setting to reduce the amount of outside air drawn into the home or car. However, they warn that paint, dust, and surgical masks are not effective inhibitors for breathing in the wildfire particulate matter.

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency reports improved air quality across the Puget Sound through August 28th, with winds bringing in fresh air from the Pacific Ocean.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Amelia Havanec

Amelia Havanec

Amelia Havanec is Crosscut's Science and Tech Fellow. She came to Washington from her home state of Connecticut by way of New York, Florida, California and Michigan in pursuit of the perfect pint. She’s a graduate student at the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Amelia is a podcaster, blogger, ice hockey player, indoor cycling instructor, and two-time marathon runner. She volunteers teaching yoga to inner-city kids in Detroit, but her “stress release” really comes from snowboarding. She’s shredded the gnar in New Zealand, Italy and Switzerland, and anticipates the next day when fresh powder hits the mountain.