- Bad air quality from the wildfires is affecting the health of the public statewide.
- Firefighters bear the brunt of the aftereffects which can extend in later life.
- They may experience various illnesses including cancers and mental issues from the traumatic events.
While the California Camp Fire continues to blaze causing indescribable death and destruction, these wildfires are also impacting the health of the general public all over the state.
Gene Gantt, California State Firefighters Association executive director, told SELF that bad air quality can extend up to hundreds of miles away. Because of trees and plant life being burned together with a mix of gases, the smoke from wildfires can lead to irritations in the respiratory system.
Common symptoms according to Gantt include: coughing, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, wheezing, watery and itchy eyes, eye pain, headaches, and tiredness.
In addition, people with pre-existing health issues such as heart and lung disease, asthma, and chest pain are at a higher risk because the smoke can aggravate their conditions., Likewise with children, elderly people, and pregnant women, they are at a greater risk and should take extra caution. Gantt recommends that if the smoke is making you ill, get yourselves checked by a doctor.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests preventive measures taken to minimize smoke exposure including: relocation if possible, or staying indoors, using HEPA-filtered air cleaners, wearing respiratory masks, and lessening physical activity.
Those working the front lines especially the firefighters also face increased health risks in the short and long run. They experience all of the symptoms caused by smoke inhalation to a severe degree due to their extended exposure and proximity to the fire.
Welle says they usually work 12 hour- shifts at a time and are on the scene for 2 to 3 weeks. Plus, the breathing apparatuses that firefighters use are too heavy and ineffective for any kind of prolonged use in wildfires. They use bandanas and respirator masks instead, that can filter out big particles but not tiny particles which clog up and quickly hinders breathing.
Exposures to bad air quality and carcinogenic gases persist around the clock too, says Welle. “They eat, sleep, and shower near the smoke, so they’re constantly exposed.”
Toxic gases and carcinogens from burning houses and structures including asbestos are also released, and firefighters are breathing all that in.
The other impacts on health may show up later in life.
The long-term effects are the biggest concern for firefighters in the next five or 10 years, says Gantt. Based on studies, CDC reports that there is a higher rate of firefighters experiencing all types of cancer.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and adult-onset asthma may also be experienced in later life. These traumatic events can also impact the mental health of firefighters and survivors as well. Firefighters are susceptible to increased mental issues like PTSD.
“It may not affect you now, but there are certain things that do come back to you later,” added Gantt.