Wildfires emit toxic air pollutants that threaten as many as 7.4 million American children every year. These pollutants can be up to 10 times more dangerous than smog from vehicle emissions or industry, and can impact children even if they’re not living in the immediate vicinity of a wildfire. Children can be put at risk at home, in their neighborhoods, and in their schools.
These are the findings of a study published in Nature examining the health effects of wildfire smoke on children’s health. They’re ominous in view of the increasing intensity and frequency of climate change-fueled wildfires, particularly in the Southeast, Pacific Northwest, and California, where over 1 million school children had classes canceled owing to wildfires there in November 2018.
We know wildfire smoke threatens adults with hospitalizations and emergency room visits for respiratory diseases, coughing, dizziness, and chest pain increasing when wildfires rage. And of course, firefighters, who are on the front lines of trying to extinguish fires, are in danger every time they head out to battle a blaze.
But researchers say that children are “especially vulnerable” because they spend more time outdoors so may have increased exposure. “They breathe more air relative to their body weight, and they are still growing and developing…and a higher proportion of [fire-related] particles can penetrate deeply into the lungs” and have adverse effects that could result in lifelong illness.
Inhaling air polluted by wildfire can worsen ADHD, autism, school performance, and memory among kids, as well.
Fetuses may also be at heightened risk if their mothers inhale toxic wildfire smoke. A study conducted in China found that babies exposed to high levels of smoke pollutants in utero may have poorer cardiovascular health as adults.
One reason why wildfire fumes are so toxic is because they contain chemicals like benzo(a)pyrene, formaldehyde, and benzene, which are released when metals, plastic, cleaning supplies, and construction materials get burned up and converted into microscopic particle pollution when a fire engulfs a home or building. We have an excellent fact resource that highlights this. Also, wildfire smoke can get pulled into the upper atmosphere, where pollutants may interact with other pollutants and become even more deadly when it eventually falls down to earth.
The study’s authors warn that “due to our warming climate, the exposure to wildfire smoke is likely to only increase, with more children exposed to wildfire smoke as the century goes on.” Indeed, wildfires burned more acres in 2020 in the US than ever before in modern records. “We can no longer ignore the link between warming and wildfires. We will see more fire seasons like 2020 in the future,” says University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch.
“We know wildfires are going to become more extreme, due to climate change,” Rosana Aguilera, study co-author and postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told The Guardian. “And it’s important that we start to reckon with the health effects of that.”
For more information and helpful tips to stay safe, check out “Wildfire Smoke and Your Health”