USA — People in Missouri and Illinois breathe in high levels of wildfire smoke, even though the fires burn in distant states. Nearly all residents in both states lived in areas with wildfire smoke conditions in 2011, making Illinois the second most affected by population and Missouri the fourth most affected state in the country, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group.
Wildfire smoke travels hundreds of miles from the western and southwestern states, and the tiny particles are not visible. The St. Louis area gets smoke particles from wildfires in Colorado and agricultural fires in Texas. Smoke from wildfires can spread throughout an area 50 times larger than the area that actually burned, according to the research led by the groups senior scientist Kim Knowlton.
Until now weve thought about fire as being unhealthy mainly for people fighting the fires and people directly affected by the flames and smoke, said Patrick Kinney, a professor of environmental health at Columbia University who reviewed the report. What it illuminates is that the smoke from fires can be a health issue for people who live pretty far away.
Climate change and subsequent droughts will only make the wildfires more common and severe, according to the researchers. The smoke poses health risks, including asthma attacks, pneumonia and other lung conditions. People without lung disease can also experience symptoms similar to allergies.
Using data from weather satellites and air quality monitors in cities including St. Louis, Knowlton and colleagues tracked the spread of smoke across the U.S. in 2011, a record year for wildfires in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. Two-thirds of the country lived in areas affected by smoke conditions. Residents of six states including Missouri and Illinois dealt with wildfire conditions for more than a week that year, despite a lack of fires inside the states. The St. Louis area was among the hardest hit, with more than 12 days of medium to high density smoke conditions.
Asthma rates are above average in St. Louis, where one in eight people have the chronic breathing disorder, and local emergency rooms log more than 12,000 visits from asthma patients each year. Some local schools report 1 in 4 students with an asthma diagnosis. High pollen counts and smoking rates were thought to be the main culprits, but wildfire smoke could also be playing a role.
Health experts recommend that everyone get flu shots, a particularly important preventive measure in households with breathing troubles. Watch the National Weather Service for poor air quality alerts and avoid outdoor activity on those days. During warm weather, keep windows closed and set the air conditioner to recirculate. Asthma attacks and allergies tend to spike in spring and summer, which correlates with wildfire season.