Wildland Fire Research: Health Effects Research
Larger and more intense wildfires are creating the potential for greater smoke production and chronic exposures in the U.S., particularly in the West. Wildfires increase air pollution in surrounding areas and can affect regional air quality.
The effects of smoke from wildfires can range from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death. Children, pregnant women, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to smoke exposure. Emissions from wildfires are known to cause increased visits to hospitals and clinics by those exposed to smoke.
It is important to more fully understand the human health effects associated with short- and long-term exposures to smoke from wildfires as well as prescribed fires, referred together as wildland fires. Research is being conducted to advance understanding of the health effects from different types of fires as well as combustion phases. Researchers want to know:
- What is the full extent of health effects from smoke exposure?
- Who is most at risk?
- Are there differences in health effects from different wildfire fuel types or combustion phases (burning versus flaming)?
- What strategies and approaches are most effective in protecting public health?
- What are the environmental, social and economic impacts of wildfire emissions?
Ongoing Research Highlights
- A novel laboratory combustion system provides the capability to control components of fire conditions and smoke that may affect health. Animal and invitro toxicology studies are ongoing to determine how wildland fire smoke impacts health.
- Researchers are partnering in a study with the Missoula City-County Health Department in Montana, University of Montana, and the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California, to measure air pollutants when smoke episodes are anticipated. The objectives of the research-- called the Wildfire Advancing Science Partnerships for Indoor Reductions of Smoke Exposures (ASPIRE) Study--are to compare indoor and outdoor fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations and develop strategies for reducing indoor pollutant in public buildings during wildland fire smoke events. PM2.5 is the pollutant that is a primary health threat from smoke exposures. ASPIRE Study
- Animal toxicology studies are under way to explore the physiological mechanisms of action resulting from smoke exposure to better understand what happens in the body that results in severe lung and heart health problems.
- Studies are examining the air quality and public health impacts of smoke from prescribed fire compared to wildfire using emissions data, air quality modeling, and health impact analyses.
- A social science focus is providing EPA insights into the health and economic costs from changes in air quality. This societal burden is calculated in terms of incidence and cost of visits to emergency departments, hospital admissions, and loss of productivity, school absences and other similar outcomes.
- EPA researchers are studying the characteristics, elements, networks, relationships, and processes that contribute to an effective smoke-ready communities plan to protect public health. The study team is using a collaborative approach with partners to study the process of collaboration as well as influencing factors and early outcomes that may be related to this approach. Smoke-Ready Communities Research to Prepare for Wildfires
- A crowdsourcing study, in conjunction with the development of a smartphone app – SmokeSense– is evaluating public health communication during smoke episodes to assess the magnitude of health outcomes. The results can be used to both estimate the economic value associated with avoiding these health outcomes and examine how health risk communication strategies affect behavior and reduce public health burdens during smoke episodes. Smoke Sense App
- Studies are being conducted to ascertain whether weatherized households have a protective effect in keeping out outdoor air pollution from wildfire smoke. Researchers are comparing health outcomes for weatherized and non-weatherized homes during wildfire season in Colorado. The research is supported by a STAR grant on Indoor Air and Climate Change.