Still smoking: The Texas wildfires and your health
The most destructive wildfires in Texas history have sadly caused two deaths, destroyed 40,000 acres in Bastrop County and more houses than any single wildfire, according to the Texas Forest Service. The disaster is blamed largely on Texas' yearlong drought, one of the harshest dry spells the state has ever seen.
There are short and long term health implications for such widespread fire and smoke.
The impact of wildfires in Austin and the surrounding areas in Central Texas is palpable with smoke and haze hovering over the area. Many folks are justifiably concerned about potential health effects from breathing in smoke from the fires and how they can protect themselves and their families. The following information largely adapted from the Austin - Travis County Department of Health and Human Services website summarizes some of the health problems that may be associated with the fires and measures you can take to protect your health and the health of your family.
Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plants. It can damage your eyes, irritate your respiratory system and worsen symptoms from pre-existing conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoke can pose a serious health threat especially if you have chronic heart or lung disease. Children and senior citizens are also at greater risk of adverse health effects. That said, even healthy people can be affected by smoke inhalation. Common symptoms of smoke exposure and inhalation include:
• Scratchy throat
• Irritated sinuses
• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
• Stinging eyes
• Runny nose
Here are some ways to protect yourself and your family:
• Limit your exposure to smoke
• Stay indoors with windows and doors shut
• Use air conditioning, if available, and run it with the fresh air intakes closed
• Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution by changes air filters often
• Do not burn candles
• Do not vacuum
• Drink plenty of water
• Avoid strenuous activity especially outdoors
• If you have asthma or other breathing problems, see your doctor if your symptoms become worse
• Consider leaving the area until the smoke conditions improve
If you have been in or very near the fires you should see a doctor. From a medical standpoint, the number one cause of death related to fires is smoke inhalation, and an estimated 50%-80% of fire deaths are the result of smoke inhalation injuries rather than burns. Excellent care rendered at today's burn centers has greatly reduced the mortality from surface burns, while the mortality from lung injury is still a major cause of sickness and death. In fact, respiratory failure is now the most common cause of death at many burn centers. Diagnosis of inhalation injury is not always straightforward, sensitive screening tests are lacking, and symptoms may be delayed until 24-36 hours after injury. Any person with apparent signs of acute smoke inhalation should be immediately evaluated by a medical professional such as a paramedic or physician. Advanced medical care may be necessary to save the life of the patient, including mechanical ventilation, even if the person is conscious and alert. Pending advanced intervention, the victim should be brought into fresh air and given medical oxygen if available.
The Texas Prepares website details resources to help develop a family emergency plan with consideration for people with disabilities, the elderly, and pets.
TCEQ has more information on air quality.
And there are a number of websites offering additional information on the health effects of smoke from wildfires: