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A Crossroads of Climate and Health: The California Fires

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

By Laryssa Gazda

Graphic by Elaine Zhang, Graphics Editor

You’ve likely heard about it over and over again in the news: the most recent deadly camp fire that swept through southern California. The fire claimed countless homes and innocent lives. The immediate effects were devastating; the fired burned through 153,336 acres of land, destroying nearly 14,000 residences, and leaving 86 individuals dead. Many others were injured or had to evacuate their homes, leaving their lives and memories behind them. Though this massive fire shocked the world with its devastation, we have seen scenarios like this before. In fact, California fire departments struggle to fight wildfires every summer caused by hot temperatures and the lack of humidity. These raging fires and their detrimental effects point to one thing: our changing climate.

Wildfire smoke contains tiny organic particles, liquid droplets, and gases such as CO, CO2, and various other volatile organic compounds, but the contents of the smoke also depend upon the fuel source of the fire. This means that wildfires can emit incredibly dangerous particles into the air we breathe, particles the wind can carry for hundreds of miles. As fires consume buildings, cars, plastic, and any other objects in their way, the air becomes contaminated by heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, and lead, all of which put us at a major risk for health complications.

The ash and pollutants that began to fill the air starting on November 8, 2018 triggered a multitude of immediate health issues, including respiratory and cardiac issues, in both California residents and residents of nearby states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that even if an individual is perfectly healthy when exposed, wildfire smoke exposure can cause labored breathing, stinging eyes, chest pain, headaches, asthma attacks, fatigue, and increased heartbeat, much of which the widespread fire was reported to cause. Another study from the Journal of The American Heart Association found smoke exposure to be associated with Emergency Department (ED) visits for adults reporting cardiovascular and cerebrovascular issues. Individuals over 65 and younger children are the most vulnerable when it comes to complications from smoke inhalation. For those over 65, the risk for cardiovascular complications is 40% higher when they are exposed to dense smoke. Norovirus breakouts were also an issue during the most recent fires in California. Due to mass evacuations, many people were forced into confined shelters where the virus spread quickly. Though the virus is less serious compared to other long-term health complications caused by the fires, many of the individuals affected had already been exposed to the dense smoke, only exacerbating their conditions.

Los Angeles County fire chief Daryl Osby reported in November that California has been in a drought for six of the past seven years. To make matters worse, this past summer was the hottest on record. The number of wildfires in the USA continues to increase as global warming worsens, and with it, earlier snowmelts, less rainfall, and hotter temperatures.7 If this trend continues, California and its surrounding states will begin to see more fires and have to suffer though the effects. As a resident of Massachusetts who attends school in Connecticut, you may be wondering why I am so concerned about these wildfires in California. I may live clear across the United States, but these fires represent the much larger problem: our changing climate and its effect on the health of all U.S. citizens. As our planet warms, these fires will spread further and further. Climate change is not going anywhere, but little by little, we may be able to slow its harmful effects on our environment and our health.


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