How breathing in wildfire smoke affects the body
For the more than seven million people in California’s Bay Area living through historic wildfires, it’s been hard to breathe for the past month. For 29 days the region has been under a “Spare the Air” alert, which means inhaling outdoor air presents a health hazard. Air quality is even worse in Oregon and Washington, and by this morning smoke had stretched all the way to the East Coast and even to Europe.
With those diseases, it can be harder to get much-needed oxygen to the rest of the body. As oxygen enters the lungs it heads to the alveoli—tiny air sacs that form a thin barrier between the air and blood—and passes into the blood in the capillaries. When the body is fighting off a threat, those air sacs can fill up with mucus so that air cannot pass through, Christenson says. This also makes it more difficult for the body to eliminate the carbon dioxide, which can also cause respiratory distress.
While respiratory problems may be the most overt response to smoke inhalation, others are less obvious. In 2018, a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that smoke from the 2015 wildfires that scorched more than 893,000 acres of California was associated with cardiovascular issues and problems with blood flow to the brain in 361,087 emergency department visits between May 1 and September 30.
“The trauma people go through may also affect their immune systems,” says Hertz-Picciotto. “When you’re driving with flames ...
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