Wildfires and Your Health

Wildfires in the summer of 2022 burned on the New Mexico mountains ringing the valley where Marquel Musgrave lives. Musgrave’s pueblo, Nanbé Owingeh, sprang into action. Community members gathered information and supplies to protect children and elders from the smoky air. 

Musgrave described this experience and more during a November panel discussion hosted by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication and Yale Climate Connections focusing on the health consequences of wildfire smoke. Musgrave was joined by Dr. Colleen Reid, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, who shared recent research on the effects that breathing in wildfire smoke has on people’s health. And Dr. Jeff Masters, Yale Climate Connections contributor and meteorologist who has a Ph.D. in air pollution meteorology, explained that climate change is worsening wildfires and air pollution. The talk was moderated by Dr. Kai Chen, an assistant professor of epidemiology (environmental health) at Yale University.

Takeaways from the panel:

  • The most vulnerable have a lot to teach: Wildfire smoke enveloped Musgrave’s community in 2020 while the COVID pandemic was in its early days. The community already had high rates of asthma. Musgrave started buying air purifiers for their community and then began making DIY air purifiers called Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, often called CR boxes. 
  • Communities are taking care of each other: Musgrave said that their community had to step up to make sure that people had access to information during New Mexico’s largest wildfires in 2022. Community members did community education campaigns, took CR boxes to evacuation shelters, measured airflow levels, and tried to make sure people were safe from COVID-19 and the smoke. Hers and other front-line communities are also calling for climate justice and the return of land to Indigenous care.
  • Wildfire smoke and respiratory illness are clearly associated: Studies show that exposure to wildfire smoke is associated with exacerbated asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly called COPD. Recent studies have also shown that wildfire smoke may exacerbate respiratory infections like the flu or tuberculosis.
  • Wildfire smoke can negatively affect birth outcomes: Reid said that in addition to respiratory illnesses, exposure to wildfire smoke has been connected to low birth weights or preterm births.
  • Wildfires harm mental health: Wildfires in general can be traumatic as evacuations and loss cause stress and grief. Smoke can also lead to isolation when people are not able to spend time outdoors.
  • Access to smoke protection isn’t equal: Dr. Reid said that people who have outdoor jobs and who live in poorly sealed homes are not able to protect themselves from smoke as well as others. Communities that have been exposed to high levels of pollution in the past are also at higher risk of poor health outcomes when exposed to wildfire smoke.
  • Wildfire smoke is an increasing problem in the Western U.S.: A lot of progress has been made on reducing air pollution since the Clean Air Act, but the increase in large wildfires is undermining some of that progress. In the Western U.S., wildfires now account for around 50% of all PM2.5, tiny pollution particles found in smoke. PM2.5 is thought to cause around 90% of all air pollution deaths.
  • There are more wildfires because of climate change: The climate in the West has gotten hotter and drier and the region is expected to become more desert-like in the future. Between 1972 and 2018, California experienced a fivefold increase in the annual burned area due to hotter summers and less rainfall. Unusual jet stream behavior, also thought to be caused in part by climate change, plays a role in prolonged hot and dry weather events in the West.
  • “We need to stop burning fossil fuels,” said Jeff Masters: Almost 9 million premature air pollution deaths each year are thought to occur due to the burning of fossil fuels, and that’s going to rise with more wildfire smoke. But clean energy is getting much cheaper and there is much room for optimism.