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2012 EPA Research Progress Report

Studying the Connections between Wildfire Smoke and Community Health

Satellite imaging shows a smoke plume from the 2008 North Carolina peat fire

More than 73,000 wildfires broke out in the United States in 2011, and that figure is expected to rise with climate change. Results from a new EPA study will help state agencies and the EPA Office of Air and Radiation identify and assist vulnerable communities and individuals who are highly susceptible to air pollutants—especially those released by wildfires.

Researchers compared different health factors in counties in eastern North Carolina that were exposed to smoke from a 2008 peat wildfire in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The peer-reviewed study shows that poorer residents had a much higher chance of getting sick from air pollutants caused by the wildfire.

During the fire, burning deposits of partially decayed vegetation released smoke and haze for several weeks. One particularly bad episode left dense ground-level smoke covering most of the eastern and central parts of the state for approximately three days. Researchers found that during this time, significantly more people than usual visited hospital emergency rooms for heart and lung complications linked to wildfire smoke inhalation.

Using data collected from 98 percent of all emergency departments in North Carolina, researchers examined health behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption, access to clinical care, socio-economic status and unemployment rates, among other factors. By analyzing these factors for patients who visited hospitals following the 2008 fire, researchers found that communities’ low socio-economic status was the best indicator of risk for worsening asthma and heart failure after smoke exposure.

Results from this study, titled Cardio-respiratory Outcomes Associated with Exposure to Wildfire Smoke are Modified by Measures of Community Health Exit EPA Disclaimer, were published in the September 2012 online edition of the scientific journal Environmental Health.

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