‘Modest’ rise in hospitalization due to future wildfires

‘Modest’ rise in hospitalization due to future wildfires

29 March 2017

published by http://environmentalresearchweb.org

USA —  Intensified wildfires under mid-century climate change in the Western US will generate only a “modest” rise in hospital admissions of the over-65s due to smoke inhalation, scientists in the US have reported.

Their study estimates that, assuming a moderate climate-change scenario, over a six-year period in the middle of this century the Western US will see fewer than 180 additional hospital admissions of those aged 65 or above because of smoke inhalation – and some of these will be the result of population increase.

Such health impacts of wildfires are nonetheless often ignored, the scientists say, and could be included in climate-change adaptation policies.

“More people are estimated to suffer from serious respiratory outcomes due to exposure to wildfire smoke in the future, hence climate-change adaptation policies could incorporate scientific evidence on health risks from wildfires,” said Jia Coco Liu of Johns Hopkins University and Yale University, US.

Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and more intense wildfires, with recent studies predicting a roughly 50–900% expansion of area burned for the Western US. According to Liu and colleagues, who are based at institutions in the US and China, that should raise concerns for people’s health. Wildfires release large volumes of fine particulate matter, which cause and worsen diseases ranging from asthma and lung cancer to heart disease and birth defects. In July last year, California issued an air-quality alert for its bay area due to smoke coming from a fire in Monterey County.

Liu and colleagues began their study by estimating, via atmospheric models, how many intense “smoke wave” days there were in two six-year periods: 2004–2009 and 2046–2051. In the next step they estimated the respiratory admission rate for the over-65s for an average smoke-wave day, before scaling up the answer between the two periods based on increasing wildfire activity and rising population.

The results showed that each Western US county would experience nearly nine additional smoke-wave days due to climate change between 2046 and 2051 compared to 2004–2009 statistics. That leads to a total over the same period for all counties of 178 additional hospital admissions due to smoke inhalation, including the rise due to population increase. During 2004–2009, there were 245,926 respiratory admissions in all Western US counties.

The main reason for this “modest” escalation, according to Liu, is that “not many people among the population go to the emergency department due to respiratory outcomes on an average day”. She continued: “…if a person goes to ER due to respiratory outcomes, the symptoms must be quite bad. Therefore, although the 178 increase seems small, each [case] will be severe.”

Liu believes that health outcomes in parts of the developing world where wildfires are common, such as Southeast Asia, would be worse than her group’s estimates because their population densities are greater and access to medical care may be less good. She is now studying whether different compositions of fine particulate matter from wildfires lead to different effects on health.

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