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Wildfire Smoke May Hit Asthmatics Harder Than Other Pollution, Study Says

The Mullen Fire burning in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming, photographed September 17.

A new study suggests smoke from wildfires is more dangerous than other air pollutants for asthma patients. 

Researchers looked at six years of data in and around Reno, Nevada, and found that high-pollution days caused by wildfire smoke sent a lot more people to the hospital for asthma. 

Daniel Kiser, a Desert Research Institute data scientist, is the lead author of the study, which was published last month in the journal Environmental Health.

“Because we were seeing a larger effect of particulate matter on days when wildfire smoke was present, we concluded that particulate matter from wildfire smoke might be more harmful to patients with asthma than particulate matter from other sources, such as vehicle emissions or dust,” Kiser said.  

The researchers examined asthma intakes at emergency and urgent care centers against data from local air quality monitoring.

However, Kiser cautions that the effects from smoke can vary widely depending on geography and how far the smoke travels, and says the study doesn't offer a blanket conclusion.  

“We definitely want to be careful about applying to other regions of the country as well, since they might have different types of particulate matter in the air, even with wildfires,” he said.

Asthma rates among adults in the Mountain West are above the national average of 7.7%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An historic and ongoing fire season on the West Coast has sent thick smoke across much of the Mountain West in recent weeks, even as the region as a whole has had a relatively mild fire season. Extreme wildfires and the unhealthy smoke they produce are becoming more common partly due to climate change.

Meanwhile, those with asthma are already more susceptible to severe illness from COVID-19. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Beau grew up listening to public radio on the Palouse. He is a former host, reporter, producer and engineer for Montana Public Radio in Missoula. As a reporter, he is interested in stories that address issues and perspectives unique to living in the West.
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