By: Hari Nanthakumar
The destruction of the hot flames was ruthless, engulfing, and destroying trees, homes, and anything else within reach.
As devastating wildfires raged through California this past year, individuals of all socioeconomic backgrounds fled their homes in the face of flames that seemed to encroach upon the very foundations of their lives. Undoubtedly, we feel sympathetic to those who have lost so much and have gone through some of the worst life has to offer.
Before we can understand exactly how wildfires affect people, we must first examine their environmental effects. Wildfires significantly worsen air pollution through particulate matter in their smoke. Particulate matter encompasses the microscopic pieces of material that fire releases, including a variety of chemical species, ash flakes, dust, and small shreds of wood. According to a review published in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology (JETP), wildfires contribute up to 20% of fine particulate emissions in the United States and up to a third of all particulate emissions in Canada.
As the air fills with smog, people are forced to breathe in an inordinate number of respiratory irritants, developing harmful new health conditions. For example, a study of the effects of the 2003 Southern California wildfires demonstrated that smoke stimulated asthma, while also causing symptoms of bronchitis, including shortness of breath and excess mucus production. The review in the JETP also revealed that, correlated with recent fires, was an increase in hospital visits for symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which blocks airflow and leads to dyspnea.
Even more worrying health developments stem from the smog and its particulate matter. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that particulate matter can affect heart and lung tissue, trigger heart attacks, decrease lung function, and even cause premature death in those with preexisting heart or lung disease. Equally ominous is the potential link between the inflammation caused by particulate matter and diabetes; toxic particulate matter enters the lungs and the bloodstream, causing inflammation in the organs and leading to insulin resistance. As this inflammation builds, the pancreas may be unable to produce enough insulin in response, and allows diabetes to set in.
As smog continues to fill the air from the California wildfires, government agencies, such as the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, have warned people to stay indoors to protect themselves. The homeless, however, often have no recourse and therefore cannot always evade the harmful effects of their environment. Even without smog, they face double the average rate of lung disease and are already more vulnerable to illnesses such as skin disorders, diseases of the extremities, and untreated mental illnesses, which can be exacerbated under the stresses of wildfires.
As Vice News reports, the wildfires may usher in a “new wave of homelessness” as increasing numbers of people’s homes are engulfed in the fires. The newly homeless will join the ranks of people who have nowhere to go as home prices and rents continue to soar throughout the California area. A case in point is the story of the paradoxically-named town of Paradise, California. With 14% of people living below the poverty line and average household incomes well below national averages, people were forced to live in front of nearby Walmart and Lowe’s parking lots due to the destruction of 90% of residential homes and Norovirus outbreaks in at-capacity homeless shelters.
Stories like this will become all too common in the future, as climate change is projected to increase wildfire emissions up to 101% in California through 2100 through increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. The number of wildfires and acreage burned is also expected to increase across the greater western United States.
Unless significant actions are taken to protect the most vulnerable of our population, we are in serious danger of putting stress on people’s health and our societal infrastructure. Just as diseases have spread within the close quarters of homeless shelters in Paradise, similar cases may befall hospitals and other public areas as crowds of people are displaced from their homes. Whether it be an efficient way to distribute air-quality masks or provide decent shelter, something needs to be done. Absolutely no one should be left alone, fearful of the very air they breathe.
Hari Nanthakumar is a freshman in SEAS hoping to study materials science & engineering.