American Lung Association Warns of Dangerous Health Effects from Wildfires, Extreme Heat and Rolling Blackouts throughout California

Extreme caution should be taken by all with respiratory vulnerabilities

Massive wildfires in Northern and Southern California combined with continuing excessive heat warnings and rolling power blackouts all present serious lung health concerns for those in or near affected areas. Fires including the Hennessey, Wallbridge and Meyers fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties as well as the River fire in Monterey County continue to burn unchecked today, and extreme weather conditions may worsen the situation. Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate, while numerous other public entities have closed due to persistent danger. Smoke from these fires already has negatively affected air quality not just in the immediate area, but throughout Northern California, with drifting smoke spreading as far as Oregon, Nevada and Idaho.

The American Lung Association offers tips to protect health from the potentially lethal health hazards smoke, extreme heat and power outages pose to people living and working in surrounding areas. Special considerations must also be made to maintain recommendations that prevent outbreaks of COVID-19.

Residents with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and those with cardiovascular diseases should take extra precautions during this hazardous time and call their physician immediately if new symptoms develop. Patients relying on oxygen should always prepare for power outages by having charged batteries or backup systems available to use in case of rolling blackouts or other power disruptions. If oxygen delivery systems malfunction or cannot operate during an emergency, patients should immediately call their healthcare provider or emergency services for additional options. Exposure to wildfire smoke and extreme heat can cause serious health problems including asthma attacks, heart attacks and premature death. Most vulnerable to smoke exposure are children and teens, pregnant women, older adults and anyone with existing respiratory problems or heart disease.

"The combination of uncontained wildfires and extreme heat has created conditions that put even healthy individuals at risk," said Afif El-Hasan, M.D., a volunteer physician and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. "During times of intense smoke and excessive heat, people face an increased risk of adverse health effects ranging from coughing and wheezing to more serious illness, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, worsening of respiratory symptoms and premature death. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic only makes these potential effects more serious. This is especially concerning for older adults and outdoor workers. Parents should give particular care to children as they are most susceptible to smoke because their lungs are still developing."

The American Lung Association in California offers the following tips during this dangerous period:

  • Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut – and clean air circulating through air conditioners and/or air cleaners. Residents should use the recirculation setting on their home air conditioners to avoid outdoor air contamination. Using whole house fans is not recommended because they can allow unfiltered outside air into the home.
  • Those with chronic lung disease are encouraged to gather all their medications, delivery devices, prescriptions and insurance cards in one spot so they can quickly be transported in the event of an evacuation.
  • If evacuating, remember to continue to follow guidance around COVID-19 such as practicing social distancing, wearing a cloth face covering and using hand sanitizer.
  • Contact a physician immediately if lung disease symptoms worsen or are not relieved by the usual medicines. Seek medical attention if experiencing wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full breath, chest heaviness, lightheadedness, and dizziness.
  • Close car windows and vents, when driving through smoky area. Air conditioning should be set to recirculate to avoid exposure to outside air.
  • Avoid exercising outdoors, particularly if you smell smoke or experience eye or throat irritation.
  • For those returning to a fire-damaged home, limit exposure to ash by wearing, protective clothing, gloves, goggles, and a fitted N-95 mask, if available. NOTE: A cloth mask, such as those often used to prevent the spread of COVID-19, will not adequately protect lungs from particles found in wildfire smoke.

More information on how wildfire smoke affects lung health is available at Call the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA to speak with respiratory therapists and registered nurses regarding questions about lung health.

For media interested in speaking with an expert about lung health and wildfires, contact the American Lung Association at [email protected] or 310-359-6386.

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