Wildfires & Human Health

Wildfires fueled by climate change are becoming more intense in the Pacific Northwest. Preparation and adaptation to these climate disasters is vital to building climate resilience and protecting our health. Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility (Oregon PSR), Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), and Neighbors for Clean Air (NCA) hosted a webinar in June of 2021 titled Our Health in Wildfire Season to explore these issues.

This webinar took place virtually in the midst of a record breaking heatwave. Just a couple hours before the webinar, one of our presenters, an intensive care unit (ICU) doctor, was working overtime at the Emanuel Legacy hospital treating heat stroke patients. During the webinar, the Spanish translator’s connection kept malfunctioning due to heat-wave induced internet and power outages. A week later, the Bootleg Fire started in south-central Oregon. Since then, the fire has burned over 400,000 acres and become Oregon's third-largest wildfire since 1900. The timing of this webinar was a bit too surreal. The climate crisis is here and it is important, now more than ever, that communities are equipped with the necessary resources and knowledge to protect their health.

How does smoke affect our health? (with Dr. Erika Moseson, MD)

Erika Moseson, MD is a lung and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) doctor at Emanuel Legacy Hospital. Dr. Moseson covered how smoke affects our health and what we can do to protect our health during a wildfire.

Dr. Moseson advises that folks reduce their exposure to particulate matter by staying indoors. You can decrease your smoke exposure dose in other ways such as exercising indoors (not outdoors) and making a clean indoor air shelter. Dr. Moseson also recommends trying to seek refuge in an area with acceptable air quality. This recommendation is especially relevant to individuals who are members of a sensitive or vulnerable group. While in the home, it is important to avoid stirring up particles and generating extra pollution. This entails not lighting candles, burning incense, vacuuming, spraying aerosol products, turning on furnaces, and using gas or wood burning stoves.

There are harm reduction strategies one can take to protect their health. Respirators are not designed for wildfire events, but they can be helpful when doing a prolonged outdoor activity in smoky conditions like going to the supermarket. When buying respirators make sure that they are NIOSH certified. You can find a list of NIOSH approved particulate respirators on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website. It is important to note that COVID-19 masks are not respirators. At the same time, respirators should not be used for extended periods of time as they can worsen heat stress. Respirators should be used as a harm reduction approach in combination with other strategies.

How to protect indoor air quality (with Dr. Elliott Gall, PhD)

Elliott Gall, PhD is an assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Portland State University. Dr. Gall discussed how smoke enters the home and strategies for creating a “clean room”.

Most residences (homes, apartments, etc.) are ventilated by windows, doors, or heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Residences are also ventilated by infiltration, or uncontrolled outdoor air that enters a space. The two most effective ways to reduce indoor wood smoke is by air sealing and air cleaning. During a wildfire, Professor Gall recommends creating a “clean room” to protect indoor air quality. A clean room is essentially a room in your home set up to keep levels of wood smoke as low as possible.

  • The first step is identifying a room. The room should be small (100 to 200 square feet) with few exterior windows and a door to the interior space for more effective air cleaning.
  • The second step is selecting an air cleaner. Professor Gall advises that people buy air cleaners with mechanical filters with phrases like HEPA and high MERV. Avoid buying additive air cleaners like ionizers or ozone generators because they have not been tested under wildfire conditions. When choosing an air cleaner, pay attention to the clean air delivery rate (CADR), a rating developed by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) that measures the amount of clean air flow that comes out of an air cleaner. Here is a link to a CADR calculator.
  • For folks that cannot afford to buy an air cleaner, there are DIY alternatives. Making your own air cleaner involves combining a box fan with MERV 13 filters. One would simply take a 20 inch box fan and attach a MERV 13 filter to the inlet side of the box fan.

Measures outdoor workers can take to minimize exposure to smoky conditions (with Ira Cuello-Martinez)

Ira Cuello-Martinez is a Policy Climate Associate for Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), or Northwest Tree Planters and Farmworkers Union. Cuello-Martinez covered what measures outdoor workers can take to minimize exposure to smoke. He also discussed the role Executive Order 20-04 plays in protecting farmworkers. This executive order “included a directive to the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and Oregon OSHA to jointly develop a proposal for standards to protect employees from workplace exposures to excessive heat and wildfire smoke.” PCUN is heavily involved in helping develop these standards. The standards will account for different forms of protection from requiring annual supervisor and employee training to monitoring the air quality index (AQI).

Employers must monitor the AQI at least every three hours. In remote areas, outdoor workers must be equipped with portable air sensors. Employers also need to provide NIOSH approved N-95 masks when the AQI reaches above 101. In addition to providing masks, employers must also develop and implement a system to notify workers of wildfire smoke hazards before the AQI reaches 101. These standards were scheduled to be finalized in June, but the pandemic pushed that deadline to the end of September. This recent heatwave demonstrated the urgent need for adequate protection of outdoor workers during extreme weather events. The development of these standards with the aid of farmworkers unions like PCUN is crucial to ensuring the safety and health of farmworkers.

View this webinar in English.

View this webinar in Spanish.