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New research reveals troubling health implications of concurrent exposure to extreme heat and wildfire smoke: 'Can lead to a lot of issues'

"Air pollution doesn't stay politely outside."

"Air pollution doesn't stay politely outside."

Photo Credit: iStock

Extreme heat and wildfire smoke are colliding in California, leading to increased hospitalizations, the New York Times reported, citing a 2024 study.

What happened?

New research has revealed that in California, concurrent exposure to extreme heat and wildfire smoke has resulted in a disproportionate number of hospitalizations for heart and lung ailments.

The study also found that the effect was greater in communities with lower levels of income, health insurance coverage, education, and tree cover.

Why is the study concerning?

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, exposure to extreme heat can compromise the body's ability to regulate its internal temperature and can lead to severe consequences including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia. It can also worsen chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease. 

Meanwhile, the effects of wildfire smoke can range in severity from respiratory tract irritation to more serious health impacts like exacerbation of asthma and heart failure, and premature death, per the Environmental Protection Agency. One study even said that inhaling wildfire smoke can be as bad for your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Plus, these two environmental threats are even more dangerous together than they are separately, the study found, as the Times explained, "the harm to health from concurrent heat and smoke was greater than the sum of its parts."

As our planet continues to warm, scientists predict that we will experience more heat waves and fires. That means there will be more opportunities for these two disasters to overlap and more opportunities for compounded health effects. In fact, the Times cited a study that revealed that two-thirds of California's land already experienced extreme heat and heavy wildfire smoke concurrently in 2020.

During hot and smoky days, just going inside doesn't necessarily help, especially for people who don't have air conditioners or air purifiers.

"Air pollution doesn't stay politely outside," Tarik Benmarhnia, an environmental epidemiologist at Scripps and one of the study's authors, told the New York Times. "It gets inside, interacts with a lot of indoor air pollutants and can lead to a lot of issues."

What's being done about the combined effects of extreme heat and wildfire smoke?

California's Air Resources Board is putting together educational resources that will help residents protect themselves from days of heat and smoke, the Times reported.

Meanwhile, the study's authors suggest that joint heat and smoke warnings could help people stay safer.

You can protect yourself by investing in a quality HEPA filter, which can improve indoor air quality during wildfires. Additionally, researchers suggest that people clean indoor surfaces by vacuuming, dusting, and mopping with a commercial, non-bleach solution to get rid of volatile organic compounds that settle. 

When it comes to extreme heat, your best bet is to stay indoors if you have an air conditioner or seek out a cooling center in your community.

Some cities are also working to protect citizens from wildfire smoke by creating clean air centers, and others are utilizing reflective or super white paints to lower temperatures.

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