Smoky summers are the new normal; UNR professor studying health effects

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Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 12:11 AM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Wildfire smoke has become a seasonal regularity in our area, and now experts say this is potentially reversing decades of improvement in air quality.

“EPA regulations implemented to protect public health have resulted in dramatic cuts to emissions from power plants and vehicles, and increased adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles should result in further improvements,” said UNR School of Public Health Professor Matthew Strickland, Ph.D.

While the immediate health effects of the smoke are well known to the medical community and anyone who’s been exposed (from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases), much less is known about what happens after the smoke clears.

“Historically, it’s been sort of short-term periods of high smoke and we haven’t really thought about this chronic, living with smoke for months at a time. At least not here in the United States,” said Strickland who is also an environmental epidemiologist.

That’s why he and two Ph.D. students at the university have been studying the health effects and trying to determine whether certain types of fires and fuels harm air quality differently than others.

“We get fires close to town, scrub brush and things like that,” said Strickland. “We also get fires from Lake Tahoe with the Jeffrey Pine Forest and trying to understand, you know, fires from different ecosystems, does that affect us differently?”

The team is creating a historical database of wildfires and prescribed burns that have impacted the area over the last 15 years. The goal is to compare that with patient records from Renown Health.

“For example, all the urgent care encounters and emergency department visits for cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease that have occurred in terms of Reno and Sparks and Carson City, and looking to see if in days when we higher smoke concentrations, do visits for those health events increase?” explained Strickland.

The research will also look at pregnancy outcomes and blood pressure.

The study is expected to be completed in two or three years. The hope is that the findings can be used to inform policy decisions.

“If we understand that certain ecosystems, the fires originating from them are worse than other ecosystems maybe we would prioritize them for prescribed burning,” Strickland.

In the meantime here are some tips on staying safe while our region experiences wildfire smoke pollution:

  • Check daily air quality forecasts
  • If air quality is poor, keep windows shut and consider using indoor air purifiers
  • Limit exposure to tobacco/marijuana smoke
  • Listen to your body – limit outdoor activity if you develop a cough, headache or other pollutant-caused symptoms