How Wildfires Can Affect Your COPD No Matter Where You Live
Last updated: June 2023
If you live on the west coast or in the mountain west region of the United States as I do, you accept that wildfires during the summer months are now a way of life. Two years ago, we had a dangerous wildfire only 7 miles from my home, and the air quality for weeks was terrible. We've been fortunate this year to have an unexpectedly rainy summer and very few fires, thankfully. But many areas, including northern California and Oregon, have not been so lucky.
Researchers at the University of Alabama point out that as our climate changes, we can expect changes such as rising ground surface temperature and decreasing humidity. That can lead to increased flammability of ground cover, accelerating the spread of wildfires. And when there is fire, fine particulate matter in the smoke degrades air quality, sometimes far away. My brother, who lives in New Haven, CT was affected by smoke from the Oregon fires earlier this summer.1
Particles and air quality
Wildfire smoke can contain fine inhalable particles, specifically PM2.5, which stands for particulate matter of a certain size. These particles are so tiny as to be almost invisible - they are 30 times smaller than a single human hair. But though they are tiny, they can have a mighty impact on even healthy lungs. Wildfire smoke can travel hundreds or thousands of miles from a fire, causing significant air pollution events in even distant areas.1-2
Air quality has improved since the 70s, but for how long will this last? The good news is that since 1970, implementation of the Clean Air Act and technological advances have improved air quality significantly in the U.S.2 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA for short) has found that just since the year 2000, PM2.5 concentrations have fallen by as much as 39%. This is in spite of the fact that our population continues to grow, Americans are driving more miles, and energy use has increased.2
So, it's especially sad that wildfires have become so common and are having such a negative impact on our nation's air quality. Fine particles in smoke can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. These microscopic particles can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases.2
In fact, in a person with COPD, already dealing with impaired lung function, the particles found in smoke can become lodged in the airways. That can cause a COPD exacerbation or flare-up of symptoms.1
Data from the study
A research team decided to study the differences in air pollution from wildfires, comparing 17 days during a low wildfire year (2011) to the same time period during a high wildfire year (2018). They used satellite data available from NASA, ground observations, and meteorological data to determine surface PM2.5 concentrations. PM, or particulate matter, can be a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air.1
Here are the results of this study:1
- Smoke from fires in British Columbia and Washington state containing fine particulate matter caused significant levels of pollution in 29 U.S. states.
- 15 of those states had more than twice as much particulate matter as they had in 2011.
- The most affected states were Washington, California, Wisconsin, Colorado and Oregon.
So, air quality during non-wildfire months has improved in the U.S. in the past couple of decades. But, because of more frequent, more intense wildfires, we are seeing a widespread deterioration in air quality during the summer and early fall months now.
The bottom line
Wildfires are often episodic and short-term, occurring primarily during the hotter, drier summer months. But the increasingly longer durations and more frequent occurrences of summertime wildfires in recent years have resulted in a long-term influence on public health across our nation.2
What can you do if you have COPD? First off, know how your local air quality has been affected by wildfires both in your area, as well as those that are more distant. You can find out about air quality at the AirNow.gov website. Secondly, be aware of your COPD status, watching out for signs of exacerbation such as:3
- Becoming more breathless than usual with your normal daily activities
- New cough, or a cough that increases in severity or frequency
- Increase in mucus or a change in the color from clear to deep yellow, green or brown
If you have a COPD Action Plan, then use it for guidance on actions to take if you feel an exacerbation coming on. If you don't have a plan to guide you, then do not hesitate to get in touch with your health care team.
Of course, you will also want to stay indoors as much as possible during smoky times. Keep windows closed and turn on the air conditioning if possible. Be sure to call your doctor or seek out emergency care if symptoms spiral out of control.
Where do you stand with your COPD?