SANTA CRUZ, California, USA (AP) – Wildfires that spew large amounts of smoke as they move along the west coast of the United States have exposed millions of people to dangerous levels of pollution, sending them to emergency rooms from hospitals, and could cause thousands of deaths of the elderly and the sick, according to an Associated Press analysis of data and interviews with doctors, authorities and researchers.
Strong concentrations of smoke exceeded levels the government considers dangerous and lasted for at least a day, spanning counties in five states where more than 8 million people live in recent weeks, the analysis noted.
Large cities in Oregon, a particularly hard-hit state, suffered the highest levels of pollution known to date when intense winds fanned the fires, which moved closer to Portland, a densely populated city.
The health disorders began when communities were still covered by smoke and hundreds of daily visits to emergency rooms caused by this phenomenon were registered, according to authorities.
“It has been brutal for me,” said Barb Trout, a 64-year-old retiree living in the Willamette Valley, south of Portland. Twice she had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance for severe asthmatic reactions, something that had never happened to her.
Trout locked himself in his house as soon as the smoke reached the valley, but within days he had an asthma attack that barely allowed him to breathe and went to the emergency room. Two weeks later smoke from the California fires hit the valley and he had an even stronger reaction. He felt like he was dying.
“It hit me hard and fast, worse than the first. I could hardly breathe, ”he said. Stabilizing medicines were prescribed and she was discharged, but the idea of a new attack terrifies her. She and her husband installed an alarm system that allows her to press a panic button and receive help.
“It changed my life,” said the woman. “I don’t want to live in fear, but I have to take good care of myself.”
In neighboring Salem, Trout pulmonologist Martin Johnson said people with respiratory problems started showing up at his hospital or calling his office as soon as the smoke arrived. Many said they had trouble breathing.
Johnson noted that most of his patients will recover, but that some may suffer permanent lung injuries. He added that there are “hidden” victims who probably died from cardiac arrest and other problems triggered by poor air quality.
“A lot of people don’t go to hospitals or die at home or go to hospice for other reasons, like pneumonia and other complications,” Johnson explained.
Researchers at Stanford University estimated that some 3,000 people over the age of 65 may have died prematurely in California after being exposed to smoke for six weeks, as of August 1. Hundreds more may have died in Washington state, according to researchers at the University of Washington.
There are no estimates for Oregon at this time and estimates for the other two states have not been published in trade journals.
Wildfires are nothing new in the west of the country, but they are gaining steam and becoming more dangerous as climate change dries up forests. What makes them more dangerous are small, hard-to-distinguish particles that cause respiratory disorders.
Fires can produce 10 times more particulates than those from other sources of pollution such as emissions from vehicles and factories, according to Shawn Urbanski, a scientist with the US Forest Service.
A number of meteorological factors made the fires particularly dangerous this year: For starters, strong winds fan the fires; also a climate “reversal” that trapped the smoke close to the ground and made it impossible to escape. Hundreds of miles south of San Francisco, the smoke caused the sky to darken and turn orange.
The AP’s analysis was based on information collected by hundreds of air quality meters from the Environmental Protection Agency. The analysis determined that at least 38 million people are exposed to levels of contamination considered unhealthy if they persist for five days.
Scientists studying the long-term impact say there is a correlation between smoke exposure and respiratory problems, weak immune systems, and a high incidence of the flu.
“Particles get into your lungs and go deep inside, irrigate the walls and can get into the blood,” explained University of Montana professor Erin Landguth. “We are seeing the effects.”
The coronavirus further complicates matters: New research sees a link between increased air pollution, high rates of infections and the severity of symptoms, according to Gabriela Goldfarg of the Oregon Health Authority.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter at @MatthewBrownAP and Camille Fassett at @camfassett