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Western Wildfire Smoke Poses Health Hazard for NC Residents

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Thursday, August 5, 2021   

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Massive wildfires in the Western U.S. and Canada have triggered poor air quality in North Carolina over the past few weeks, and health experts say it is important for residents to know traveling smoke can cause more than hazy skies.

Dr. Stephanie Johannes, pediatrician and health programs manager for CleanAIRE NC, said research shows tiny particles can penetrate the lungs and cause a range of health problems.

"We know that when that air from the West Coast shows up here in North Carolina, it's affecting our air quality here," Johannes explained. "And it's really putting people - everybody - at risk for health problems, but especially those people that already have some heart or lung condition, especially people with asthma."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said wildfire smoke can make people prone to lung infections, including the coronavirus. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a warmer and drier climate is expected to lead to more frequent and intense fires and smoke plumes, which in turn are expected to affect more people.

Johannes pointed to research published earlier this year by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, which found the fine particles in wildfire smoke can cause more harm to human lungs than particulate matter from other sources such as car exhaust.

"There's a lot of data that shows that this particular kind of pollution contributes to symptoms like eye and respiratory-tract infections," Johannes noted. "But also to really severe things, worsening heart and lung conditions that people have and even causing premature death."

She encouraged families with young children, the elderly and those with a chronic disease to regularly check their local air-quality index at airnow.gov. Air-quality indexes use ozone and particle pollution measurements from zero to 300.

"Anything over 100 is unhealthy for people in those sensitive groups," Johannes advised. "And anything over 150 is something that's risky, really, for everybody."

Johannes recommended planning outdoor activities or exercising on lower air-pollution days, and said it is important to talk to your doctor or child's pediatrician about air-quality concerns.

Disclosure: CleanAIRE NC contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, Environmental Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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