0715-News-Wild fires risk_Blog

Air pollution from wildfires may increase risk for cardiac arrest and other acute heart problems, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“While breathing wildfire smoke is linked to respiratory problems such as asthma, evidence of an association between wildfire smoke exposure and heart problems has been inconsistent,” said the study’s author Anjali Haikerwal, a doctoral candidate at the School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Understanding how wildfires affect the heart is timely this time of year, as firefighters in July battled wildfires in central Washington caused by lightning and hundreds of wildfires have burned since late June in Alaska, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. In western Canada, thousands of people have been forced to evacuate.

The resulting smoke and haze from the wildfires have resulted in air advisories in parts of western Canada and the United States. Tiny solid particles and gases from wildfire smoke can travel for miles, exposing people to pollution.

The Forest Service told the Senate in 2013 that wildfires have been raging far more in recent years than in previous decades. Reasons included untamed vegetation, climate change and development.

In the new study, researchers examined the association between wildfire-related tiny particulate pollutant exposure and the risk of heart-related incidents in the state of Victoria, Australia, in December 2006 and January 2007. During those two months, smoke reached cities far from the blazes. On most days during the wildfire the levels of fine particulate air pollutant exceeded recommended air quality limits.

The particles studied by researchers are smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimeter in diameter, which is smaller than a speck of dust and typically not visible to the human eye.

Using Victoria health registry data during the wildfire period, researchers found there was a 6.9 percent increase in out-of-hospital cardiac arrests, with a stronger association between pollution and cardiac arrests in men and people 65 and older. Emergency department visits for ischemic heart disease increased 2.07 percent, and hospitalizations for ischemic heart disease increased 1.86 percent, particularly among women and people 65 and older.

“These particles may act as a trigger factor for acute cardiovascular health events,” Haikerwal said. “Do not delay seeking medical help if you experience symptoms of heart problems during smoke episodes from wildfires.”

Given the increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires worldwide in recent years, it’s important to understand the impact of wildfire smoke exposure on acute health effects in the community, Haikerwal said.

“During a fire, please take precautionary measures as advised by public health officials,” Haikerwal said. “This is especially important for older adults who are at higher risk of adverse health effects during wildfire smoke exposure.”

Fine particulate matter may be a common and hazardous type of air pollutant. Besides burning wood, it also comes from burning coal, car exhaust and other sources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides daily updates to notify Americans about daily air quality levels and particulate matter levels nationwide.