By Pat Carragher - October 04, 2023
If you've noticed a layer of haze in the Tampa area and wondering if the air you're breathing could cause harm, you're not alone. Fortunately, the long-term dangers are not much of a cause for concern.
Immediate risks include inflammation and weakening of the immune system. This is due to tiny particles penetrating the lungs and entering the bloodstream.
“The vast majority of the risks are going to be immediate,” said Dr. Matthew Schabath, an associate member in the departments of Cancer Epidemiology and Thoracic Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center. “You’re dealing with possible respiratory distress or dermatitis issues. People who suffer from asthma or other chronic lung diseases are at a higher risk for symptoms.”
"You’re dealing with possible respiratory distress or dermatitis issues. People who suffer from asthma or other chronic lung diseases are at a higher risk for symptoms."- Dr. Matthew Schabath, Cancer Epidemiology and Thoracic Oncology departments
While the photos of New York City blanketed in an orange haze which circulated earlier this year appeared to be something out of a science fiction movie, what’s in the air is very real. This was due to smoke drifting down from Canada, where wildfires continue to burn.
Government officials, scientists and public health experts warned millions of Americans in the Northeast to stay indoors. Smoke was reported as far west as Ohio and as far south as North Carolina. Here in the Tampa area, the haze already seems to be dissipating.
According to a study published in the Journal of Thoracic Disease, the long-term risks of particle pollution include an increased risk of asthma, lung cancer or other chronic lung diseases. Groups including older people, pregnant women, infants and children are particularly vulnerable.
A population study published in The Lancet Planetary Health looked at the connection between exposure to wildfires and cancer risk. While the data suggests long-term exposure might be associated with an elevated risk of lung cancer and brain tumors, the study’s authors believe more research is needed to say for sure.
“There were small risks found,” Schabath said. “They’re small but significant. When you look at large populations, you find these statistically significant. It doesn’t capture it truly at the individual level, but it shows the importance of primary prevention of any types of exposure.”
If you’re in an area that is exposed to smoke from wildfires, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently shared a list of ways you can protect yourself:
- If it looks or smells smoky outside, take it easier to reduce how much smoke you inhale.
- Choose a mask that will help protect you from smoke. N95 respirator masks provide the best protection from wildfire smoke. Cloth masks will not protect you from wildfire smoke.
- Limit time spent outdoors by only performing essential activities and taking frequent breaks indoors.
- Reschedule outdoor work tasks.
While there are no guidelines for screening for lung cancer due to wildfire exposure, Schabath doesn’t believe this kind of exposure warrants a trip to your doctor unless you’re experiencing symptoms like respiratory distress.