Fine Particle Pollution From Wildfires May Harm Kids More Than Other PM2.5

(Reuters Health) – Fine particles produced by western wildfires was associated with larger surges in child visits to the emergency department and urgent care than pollution from traditional sources, such as traffic and industry, a new study suggests.

An analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data on particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM 2.5) and data on children’s emergency department and urgent care visits at a San Diego health network for respiratory issues reveals a 10-fold increase in visits associated with wildfires, according to the results published in Pediatrics.

“Even though our records do not have any extreme wildfire events we still see an increase in visits,” said the study’s lead author, Rosana Aguilera, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego.

Part of the reason for that could be the different chemical composition of the pollutants and possibly the higher temperatures, Aguilera said. “Studies have looked at the type of biomass being burned and also other components, such as infrastructure burned in the fires,” she added.

To look at the impact of fine particles from wildfires on children’s respiratory health, Aguilera and her colleagues analyzed PM2.5 data collected by the EPA along with emergency department and urgent care visits at the Rady Children’s Hospital network between 2011 and 2017. The network provides medical care for 91% of San Diego’s hospitalized children.

During the study period, there were 45 wildfires in San Diego County with a total of 108,000 acres burned and 884,471 emergency department and urgent care visits at Rady facilities. Respiratory visits were noted if patients were experiencing difficulty breathing, respiratory distress, wheezing, asthma or cough. Overall, 20% of visits (174,766) were for respiratory issues.

Between 2011 and 2017, mean wildfire-specific PM2.5 concentration was 2.46 micrograms per cubic meter, and maximum fire-specific PM2.5 was 18.2 mcg/m3. The mean number of daily respiratory visits per 100,000 individuals was 2.5.

The analysis found that a 10-unit increase in PM2.5 from aggregated sources was estimated to increase the number of visits by 3.9%, and similarly, a 10-unit increase in non-wildfire PM2.5 sources increased visits by 3.7%. In contrast, a 10-unit increase in PM2.5 from wildfire smoke was estimated to increase visits by 30.0%. That suggests wildfire-specific PM2.5 was approximately 10 times more harmful to children’s respiratory health, especially those aged 5 years and younger, the researchers conclude.

Environmental health expert Joan Casey was “pretty shocked” by the 30% increase in visits for respiratory issues associated with wildfire smoke.

“It’s a pretty compelling finding,” said Casey, an assistant professor of environmental health science at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in New York City. “The method used to disentangle normal fine particle matter from wildfire particle matter is a good way to get at the question.”

Casey agrees that part of the issue may be different constituents in wildfire smoke compared to what is seen in the typical pollution created by traffic and industry. “There might be more chemicals, metals and black carbon, which we know is particularly harmful to health, in the wildfire smoke,” she said.

“I also wonder if a piece of this is psychological-stress-related,” Casey said. “When there’s a wildfire event, folks know about it. You can smell it in the air. It looks gloomy. There are warnings not to go out. And that can be distressing. We know that stress is related to asthma attacks, so seeing smoke could contribute.”

Moreover, because everyone is tuned in to the news of the wildfire, parents may be paying more attention to their kids’ breathing, Casey said. Still, “I think certainly part of this is the wildfire smoke itself and I do think it contains more toxic components than a more traditional PM2.5 mix.”

Casey suggests people pay attention to smoke warnings, stay indoors as much as possible and not exercise outdoors when there are wildfires. “If one has the economic means, purchasing an air purifier to create a safe room that can stay clean if it can be kept sealed would be a good idea,” she added.

“If the findings (are reproduced) we really need to think about protecting lung health during wildfire season,” Casey said.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online March 23, 2021.

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