Wildfires are the 'new abnormal.' Here's what that means for our health

The health risks of inhaling wood smoke include increased risk for heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. Here's what we can do.

Greenwood fire file
The Greenwood Fire pictured on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. Contributed / Superior National Forest
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Smoke from the Greenwood fire substantially increased when the wildfire doubled in size between Monday and Tuesday, worsening air quality conditions in Northeastern Minnesota.

Dr. Laalitha Surapaneni, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said that while this summer's wildfires and the health risks they pose act as an immediate reminder of the climate crisis, it's also a reminder of the dire need to take climate action and stop burning fossil fuels.

Rather than just responding to the crisis, Surapaneni said it's also vital to mitigate and take action through prevention and planning.

"How do we plan for the future knowing that this will only continue to happen? It's our new abnormal," Surapaneni said. "We need to understand, as a health system, to plan for a surge in cases where people are calling the ambulance saying they can't breathe, in a small town especially, thinking about, 'What capacity do we have?'"


Laalitha Surapaneni
Laalitha Surapaneni Contributed / University of Minnesota

A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that came out in early August said that it's "unequivocal" that humans have warmed the planet by 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), mainly through burning fossil fuels.

"You'll never hear us be so sure about anything," she said. "The science is undeniable. There's definitely work that we need to do to stop burning fossil fuels, stop making the situation worse, but then there's also the work that we have to do to protect our communities from the impacts that are already happening with this warming."

Climate change is making wildfires longer, more severe and more frequent, which is why Surapaneni said everyone needs to get on the same page, in order to figure out how to protect health at both an individual and collective level.

And while experts can't say climate change caused the Greenwood fire, that was nearly 22,000 acres as of Wednesday , Surapaneni said these types of events will continue to happen and will continue to get worse.

The health risks of inhaling wood smoke include increased risk for heart attacks, strokes and asthma attacks. That's because polluted air contains tiny particulate matter that travels into the lung and deeper into the bloodstream, causing inflammation in the body.

PREVIOUSLY Unprecedented air quality means 'more heart attacks' A statewide air quality alert is in effect until noon Tuesday, Aug. 3.
Children and older people are the most susceptible to the health impacts because their ability to compensate is much lower, Surapaneni said. Children who run around breathing in polluted air might experience symptoms like coughing and a tight chest. That said, even healthy people outside of those age groups might experience symptoms like headaches, burning eyes, runny nose and chest tightness.

This is because the body's ways of expelling foreign content are working harder when inhaling smoke, causing an inflammatory response in the lungs, said Dr. Amery Robinson, an emergency medicine physician at St. Luke's.


Robinson, the medical director of the hospital's emergency department, said it's unclear if St. Luke's has seen more emergency cases linked to poor air quality conditions this summer from wildfire, especially because it's hard to identify the exact trigger of a medical issue.

"It would be hard to quantify how much of an uptick there is related to this, but I have to anecdotally believe that if you have asthma this is making it worse," Robinson said.

St. Luke's has not braced for an uptick in medical emergencies in response to the growing Greenwood Fire and other area fires, Robinson said.

"(Changes in complaint volume) are really hard to predict," he said. "One might think, 'It's super hot outside so we're going to see a bunch of people with heatstroke,' and then it doesn't materialize. We're totally equipped to handle a respiratory complaint 24/7. That's our bread and butter."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued an air quality alert for Lake, Cook, St. Louis, Carlton and Koochiching counties Tuesday that was extended until 8 p.m. Wednesday. A section spanning Duluth, Ely and International Falls was placed under the Air Quality Index categories of unhealthy for all, while the rest of the region was placed under the category of "unhealthy for sensitive groups."

The American Heart Association has affirmed that even short-term increases in the tiny particulate matter found in air pollution is linked to early death. Much of what scientists know about the health consequences of breathing dirty air is through research done on pollution from vehicles and power plants, or burning fossil fuels.

Scientists don't yet know what exposure to wildfire smoke and its impact on child development means in the long term, Surapaneni said, and how different groups are affected, such as those experiencing homelessness and people with outdoor jobs, such as firefighting and farming.

It's also unclear if wildfire smoke has similar or more severe consequences than other air pollution, though at least one study suggests it's more toxic.


"The biggest thing to recognize from this would be that climate change is a public health crisis," Surapaneni said. "We can't just keep building more fossil fuel infrastructure and locking in future emissions, because then we're just gonna make the root cause of the situation worse."

What you can do to protect your health

  • Close windows.
  • Use certified air filters to keep indoor air quality clean or keep at least one room that's filtered to seek refuge in when needed.
  • Reduce exercise.

  • Wear an N95 mask if exposed to smoke.

  • Carry an inhaler if you use one.

Related Topics: FIRES
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