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What Are The Long-Term Health Effects Of Breathing In All This Wildfire Smoke?

Oct 14, 2020

Wildfires have caused record-breaking stretches of bad air quality in the Bay Area these last few years. In this interview, Dr. Gina Solomon from UCSF and the Public Health Institute speaks about the long term health effects of breathing in all this smoke.

Some people who are breathing wildfire smoke today are paying a price right away ... Other people are going to be paying the price years and years from now decades from now, as their lung function declines in a subtle way as they get older.




MARISSA ORTEGA-WELCH, SCIENCE REPORTER: What do you worry about for people in terms of the long term health effects of all of this smoke? 

DR. GINA SOLOMON: I was interviewed a few years ago about wildfire smoke and health effects. And I was saying, “This is a short term thing. It’s just happening for a few weeks this year. And so we need to worry about the acute effects.” And year after year, as these fires come back and they stretch over more weeks and more months, it gets harder and harder to just talk about the acute effects. We really have to think about long-term health effects. 

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ORTEGA-WELCH: A lot of us are getting used to checking the air quality reports when we wake up in the morning. For example, yellow means moderate air quality; red is bad air quality. How should we be interpreting the different colors in terms of their long term health effects?

SOLOMON: How worried you should be depends a bit on your underlying risks. If you have asthma or any underlying condition, you want to be much more cautious. But once the air quality turns red, all of us are at risk. And so we all need to be really careful, you may be doing yourself more harm than good going out for a run and breathing in all that bad air. I am a doctor; I never tell people to cut back on exercising! And here I am telling people to cut back on exercising when the air quality's bad because it's not worth it.

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ORTEGA-WELCH: How has your behavior changed? Do you go out for a walk when the air quality level is in the red or do you stay indoors?

SOLOMON: I'm a dog owner, so I go out for walks no matter what. But I make them shorter or longer walks depending on what the air quality looks like. I also happen to have just a couple of N-95 masks from previous fire years. I've pulled those out. It's not a hundred percent [effective], but it definitely reduces the exposure.Even a regular surgical mask will slightly cut back the amount of air pollution by an estimated twenty or or thirty percent The masks that we're wearing to protect ourselves and to reduce the risk of COVID do have a slight benefit for air pollution.

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ORTEGA-WELCH: How does the smoke and bad air quality affect people that might have COVID-19?

SOLOMON: There were a few studies that have come out that suggest that death rates may be higher from COVID in areas with worse air quality. That's not that surprising, to be honest. Wwe already know that our pollution worsens both respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. And COVID is linked to both of those. We're going to have more science on this soon, but it certainly is a concern. 

ORTEGA-WELCH: How good is the air quality in the Bay Area when it's not fire season? 

SOLOMON: The air quality in the Bay Area depends quite a bit on where you live. There are communities in the Bay Area that have real challenges with air quality and other communities where the air quality is just great. And so we need to think about that. And we need to think about it not only at a broad general county level, but down to a block-by-block level. Because what we've found is in places like West Oakland, for example, you can see hotspots that are just a few blocks with big disparities because of local pollution sources. 

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