“Health is not valued until sickness comes.” So said the 17th century English historian, Thomas Fuller. What might Mr. Fuller have said if he’d seen the skies over Tahoe darken with wildfire smoke year after year?
As Tahoe area locals know all too well, we are a frontline climate change community, bearing the effects of wildfire smoke and risk to life and property every summer and fall. The threat to our public health has become palpable and regular.
There are several known physical harms associated with wildfire smoke. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Health effects attributed to wildfire smoke exposure include respiratory symptoms such as coughing, and difficulty breathing; respiratory effects such as bronchitis and reduction in lung function; cardiovascular effects such as heart attacks and stroke; and increased risk of premature death.”
Recent research also suggests that the fine particulate matter contained within wildfire smoke, also called PM 2.5, may be significantly more toxic than particulate matter found within other sources of air pollution, such as vehicular or industrial emissions. These fine particles are small enough to enter deep into the lungs and can be absorbed into the bloodstream, leading to inflammation and immune system harm. Moreover, the content of wildfire smoke is changing, as human development sprawls further into traditionally undeveloped wild landscapes. This increase in development creates a growing area known as the wildland urban interface, a zone where human development and structures intermix with wildlands. Wildfires that occur within WUIs burn both forest vegetation as well as man-made products (cars, buildings, etc.), which may increase the toxicity of the smoke emerging from these fires.
In the recent Health and Climate community forum held at Truckee Town Hall (link to the video archive here: Tahoe Truckee Media | Climate Change & Health, December 7, 2022 (open.media), a panel of local physicians spoke about the health effects – both physical and mental – of climate change on our health, as well as that of our children.
Dr. Sarah Woerner, a recently-retired pediatrician in Grass Valley, listed the vulnerabilities that children have to wildfire smoke and other health hazards.
“Children have a faster metabolic rate. They’re taking air in and out at a much more rapid rate. They’re breathing in these particles more often … They have developing organs so [it’s] getting into their lungs, their liver, their kidney …”
As if the concerns about our children aren’t enough, the mental health effects associated with climate change and wildfire smoke are also starting to garner more understanding and attention. Some notable impacts that many within our own community can relate to include: the trauma of evacuations and the fear of losing loved ones or belongings, stress and anxiety associated with the presence (or anticipated arrival) of smoke, confusion and frustration with lack of reliable information upon which to make risk-related decisions, and feelings of isolation, hopelessness and depression associated with a lack of exercise and being confined to the indoors. This is especially potent for those in rural communities, where access to nature and the outdoors plays a huge role in quality of life.
Dr. Elizabeth Haase, a psychiatrist based in Carson City and Chair of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health, spoke at December’s forum about the powerful mental health effects of heat and air pollution, the latter of which we experience acutely when wildfire smoke inundates our skies. “Heat and air pollution have very direct effects on the brain. Heat increases violence. Heat also increases stroke and heart attacks, and people with stroke and heart attacks have about a 70% chance of getting depressed.”
The link between climate change and both individual and public health is widely documented and increasingly at the forefront of discussions about how to address the growing impacts of climate change.
There are a number of steps that individuals can take to both reduce their carbon emissions and become more adaptive and resilient to the health effects of climate change. However, systemic changes, starting at the community level and expanding to state and federal policy, are what will really move the needle on protecting human health and wellbeing. Health care systems in particular are in a unique position at the intersection of climate change and public health. There are meaningful opportunities for the industry at large to engage, but movement from our local health care systems will benefit our communities most readily as we continue to grapple with wildfire and smoke.
Jaena Bloomquist is a Truckee resident and mother of two. She is a writer, editor, and climate advocate. She can be reached at [email protected].
Meg Heim is an artist, amateur mycologist, and climate advocate. She lives on the west shore with her husband and her brown lab. She can be reached at [email protected].