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Smoke From Wildfires Reaches East Coast And Europe. What Are Its Effects?


A small victory this morning in Portland, Ore., as the air quality was downgraded from hazardous to unhealthy. One person tweeted - celebrating like an absolute madman that the air in Portland is only unhealthy today. For the past week and a half, Portland has consistently had some of the worst air quality in the world. And the smoke from the fires in Oregon and California has spread far beyond the West Coast.

So what will the health effect of all this smoke be? I spoke with Emily Fischer, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, earlier today. And I asked her to explain the air quality ratings.

EMILY FISCHER: So you can think of the air quality index as a yardstick for air pollution. And so low values of the index, the air quality is great. Unhealthy air pollution tends to affect sensitive groups, so those with preexisting conditions, young children and the elderly may experience health effects. But the general public is less likely to be affected. As you move into the really warm colors - red, purple, even maroon - these are what you can think of as emergency conditions where there is a risk of health effects for nearly everyone.

PFEIFFER: And tell us more about what might those health effects be.

FISCHER: In these regions that are being impacted by fresh, very concentrated smoke, there is an association between that exposure and mortality, though more research is needed on the cause of death. But typical health effects include itchy eyes and throats to exacerbations of asthma, declines in lung function. And then you can see things like bronchitis and pneumonia. What we know less is whether there are cardiovascular outcomes from exposure to wildfire smoke.

PFEIFFER: That unknown seems like it would be very unsettling for people who are involuntarily breathing in a lot of wildfire smoke right now.

FISCHER: Yes, it is unsettling. And this is an area where we certainly need more research.

PFEIFFER: What can people do to keep themselves safe from wildfire smoke, if anything?

FISCHER: I would recommend that if your air quality index is in the orange or above that you take it easy. You stay inside. You try to leave your windows closed. If you have the opportunity to filter your air, you do so, and you wait it out.

PFEIFFER: Emily, we mentioned you're on faculty at Colorado State University. You're based in Fort Collins, Colo. Does that mean you personally - you and your family - have felt or been affected by these wildfires?

FISCHER: Absolutely. There is a major wildfire that's burning relatively close to here. And we're also now experiencing smoke from the fires that are on the West Coast.

PFEIFFER: What's that been like for your family?

FISCHER: It's been very hard for our family. COVID is already hard for a family with children. And the way we've been coping with COVID is to play outdoors more. And when there's dangerous levels of smoke outside, I tell my kids they're not allowed to do that. And that's hard for us. That's hard for - it's hard for everyone.

PFEIFFER: Emily, I have - I guess it's almost a philosophical question. The pandemic has us thinking a lot about air, particularly indoor air. The wildfires have us thinking a lot about outdoor air. Does it strike you at all that there's this convergence of these things happening that have us so aware of the air we breathe whether we're inside or outside?

FISCHER: Right. I think the last few months have made us appreciate clean air in so many different ways. And the good news is, this year, the wildfire smoke will eventually end. And hopefully we can all be ready for this to happen again because the types of fire seasons that we're seeing now are somewhat consistent with the future projections under a warmer world.

PFEIFFER: Emily Fischer is a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. Thank you for coming on the program.

FISCHER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.