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Wildfires and lungs -- more about 'why' and 'what to do'

November 17, 2008 |  5:39 pm


With fire season now existing apparently year-round, perhaps it's time for Southern Californians to post what-to-do-in-case-of-smoky-air guidelines next to those what-to-do-in-case-of-fire guidelines.

Here's the current state of affairs: Residents warned of poor air quality in fire zones

And here's an explanation of what smoke does to the body and why area residents should consider, and reconsider, the need to be outdoors right now.  In a woeful deja vu, this was actually published last fall: The air won't do you good: "Anyone planning outdoor activities should think twice. Small children are particularly vulnerable." 

As that story explains:

Tiny particulates, whether from wildfire smoke, diesel exhaust or some other source, are a serious health threat because they can lodge deep in lungs. When particulates reach hazardous levels, hospitalizations, even deaths, increase from asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, heart attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

For many people, the risk is temporary -- headaches, stuffy noses, stinging eyes, coughs and shortness of breath. But for others, it can be life-threatening.

Studies show that in the days after wildfires, hospitalizations from asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and heart attacks rise. Even healthy people often cough and experience headaches, stinging eyes, stuffy noses and flu-like symptoms.

Here's some new research on why such exposure matters: San Diego-area hospitals saw a spike in asthma-related visits during 2007 wildfires

For a broader look at dirty air in general, of which Southern California has its fair share and of which smoke is but a part, we have: It's worse than dirty: "Mounting scientific evidence reveals that exposure to air pollution interferes with the development of children’s lungs, reducing their capacity to breathe the air they need. Although the long-term consequences aren’t known, it is known that growth in lung function is nearly complete by the end of adolescence." Along with: Do your part to breathe easier, indoors and out

Here's a warning for those reluctant to give up their outdoors workout: Smoggy day? Exercise caution

Now for the strictly practical advice. The American Lung Assn. of California reminded us of these recommendations (both generally and for those in affected areas) a little over a month ago: During fires, try to be good to your lungs

The Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units at UC Irvine and UC San Francisco also offer up a fact sheet, in English and in Spanish, about the health risks of wildfires to children.

The first recommendation: Stay indoors.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: The rising sun filters through smoke hanging in the air near Santa Barbara on Friday. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times