Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Fields and Forests in Flames: Vegetation Smoke & Human Health

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Fields and Forests in Flames: Vegetation Smoke & Human Health

Article excerpt

People have lived for tens of thousands of years in the presence of smoke from fires. That long period of adaptation tends to allow healthy younger adults in today's environments to be generally resistant to serious adverse health effects from smoke from sources such as wildfires, prescribed forest burns, agricultural field burns, and peat bog fires, says Wayne Cascio, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Public Health Division.

But a high percentage of people aren't young, healthy adults. In the United States, nearly half the population suffers from at least one chronic illness (1), potentially placing them at risk for adverse effects from exposure to fire smoke. Children and older adults also are considered more vulnerable to smoke's effects (2). The limited health research that's been done on smoke from large-scale fires has provided some refinements to these general categories of vulnerable people, and new information occasionally emerges. There also has been a trickle of information identifying the toxic substances that characterize smoke from various kinds of fires, and pinning down the specific body systems that are vulnerable and the pathways through which damage occurs.

But much remains unknown about the varying toxicity of emissions from different types of vegetation fires and the vulnerability of specific groups of people, although a good deal of research has examined the adverse health effects of smoke related to heating and cooking with wood (3). Filling these voids is essential, Cascio says. "It is critically important to define who is at highest risk so that individual and community-based intervention strategies can be developed to specifically mitigate the health risks associated with smoke exposure," he says. "The goal, of course, is to provide education or intervention to the most sensitive individuals in the most cost-effective way without needlessly worrying or interfering with the daily activities of [others]."

Such information can also help organizations and individuals who deal with fire threats as they work to integrate health concerns with many other factors, such as land management practices and programs, cultural mores, political influences, and funding.

Conflagrations in the woods

In the United States there has been an irregular but generally upward trend in the occurrence and severity of forest wildfires in the last 50 years. Each year between 1960 and 2010, some 1.1-9.9 million acres burned, with the highest acreage burned in 2006 (4). At least 7 million acres burned in each of 7 of those 50 years; 6 such years occurred in the period 2000-2010 (4). At least 5 million acres burned in each of 14 years, 10 of which fell in the period 1996-2010.

The annual acreage burned is expected to increase to about 10-12 million acres within just a few years (5). One of the forces expect-ed to drive this projected increase in fires is climate change, which is expected to usher in increased drought, spreads in insect damage, and longer fire seasons, according to the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and National Association of State Foresters, and a growing body of independent studies (5), (6), (7). Among the areas expected to face the greatest increase in fire threats are the Southeast, Southwest, and West, although the Midwest and East also are expected to experience some increases.

However, some experts remain cautious, saying the science on wildfires and future impacts of climate change is still a work in progress. Brian Schwind, director of the U.S. Forest Service's Remote Sensing Applications Center, says, "It's a really complicated picture with a lot of variables. We're early in the analytical phases. Sometimes we jump to conclusions a little fast."

Historically, people have caused most wildfires. …

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