Climate Change, Wildfires and Smoke

Wildfire has become the smell and sight of summer in many locations throughout the United States and worldwide. What is it doing to our health?

In this episode of Learning More, we learn more about wildfire smoke and its effects on our health. We speak with Luke Montrose, an Assistant Professor of Community and Environmental Health, Boise State University.

Show Links:

Luke’s department website.

Luke’s lab website.



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Show Transcription (Automated)

Environmental Toxicologist


[00:00:00] Russ: Wildfire has become the smell and sight of summer in many locations throughout the United States and throughout the world. What is it doing to our health? We learn more about wildfires and our health.

All right. Thanks for listening. And thanks for subscribing to learning more, where each episode, we bring you a new story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life. I’m Russ. And this week, I am joined by Luke Montrose. He’s an assistant professor of community and environmental health at Boise state university.

Thanks for joining me, Luke. Thank you for that. I live in California, which many people call the golden state, but here in California, we know that it’s actually become the orange state, at least over the last few years. It’s like weeks of the summer are just filled with orange skies here from the wildfires and okay.

Yeah. Obvious. Problems with the wildfires are the homes that are being burned down the, you know, lives lost in this, but you’ve also got to start to think about what is this doing to me and to my health. So you’re an environmental toxicologist. Can you tell us a little about that? And then we’ll get into kind of what this is doing to each one?

[00:01:38] Luke:

Yeah. So environmental toxicology is broadly the study. Yeah. The world around us and how it interacts with our bodies causes biological, adverse reactions. So this could be anything from table salt, water, all the way up to cyanide. And so, I specifically study wildfire smoke and what that does from an acute standpoint.

So short-term exposures as well, as, as you’ve mentioned now, these long-term exposures being exposed for multiple months. And maybe even if you live in California for 50, 60 years, what is 50 years of being exposed a couple of months at a time?

[00:02:17] Russ: So what does it do

[00:02:18] Luke: so we have a wealth of information about what particulate matter does to our lungs and the rest of our body.

But what is particulate matter, and why is that different than wildfire smoke? So particulate matter is a very broad term. That essentially means anything that can be suspended in the air that you can breathe into your lungs. So that could be urban particulate matter. So think like car pollution industrial pollution coming out of it.

That could be silica dust. So you get that when you’re in a farming environment or if you’re driving down a dusty road, and then you also have a particulate matter that comes from wildfire smoke, and these do different things to your lungs. And we don’t have as much information about wildfire smoke as we do about general air pollution, particulate matter.

But what we do know is that it’s some particles are small enough that they get all the way into ours. And once they’re there, they can call—all kinds of damage. And in particular, they can cause inflammation, and they can disrupt the natural immune response that your body is supposed to have.

[00:03:28] Russ: This makes me think instantly about secondhand smoke.

We did all these things here, here in California, a little longer ago where you couldn’t smoke inside, you know, like bars, restaurants, things like that. We banned that, like, I don’t know, years ago I happened to be working as a DJ at the time. So I was in a lot of bars and clubs, and it was amazing once they did this band.

Cause I would smell the smoke on my clothes when I would get home. So I’d have to like shower and change when I got home. Just cause it smelled so bad

[00:03:55] Luke: here in Boise, Idaho, we get a lot of secondhand smoke from our neighbors to the west. And so that’s why and we can get into this, but you know, mitigation strategies to try to tamp down wildfires and the smoke that.

It can’t be just a state-by-state prerogative. We need to be thinking. Sort of more nationally more globally about this because smoke doesn’t know when a zip code changes or when state boundaries change. So we have these issues with it being transient. Okay.

[00:04:26] Russ: So there’s that issue of the secondhand smoke?

I’m thinking what about the issues that we might see with the firefighters going right into the smoke and having to experience this for a longer period of time? So, this is a

[00:04:41] Luke: really great question that I am putting a lot of effort into trying to move the needle on this. And spoiler alert, I guess the wildland firefighting community does not have a robust cohort design long-term study going on.

So what I mean by that is we are not actively recruiting and following, tracking and monitoring the health of wildland firefighters in the way that we should be doing. Such so that we can answer your questions. And as an example of what I would say. Let’s say that we wanted to know the relative risk of lung cancer for a wildland firefighter.

Who’s worked 50 years versus twenty-five years versus five years. The cohort needed for that does not currently exist. There are no ongoing studies where we would be able to tap into those resources and ask that question. But those are important questions, but that’s the spoiler alert. We don’t have the answer, but if we were going to have me.

I tell my students that environmental exposures environmental toxicology is all about three main things: dose duration and frequency. And so a caveat to that is I’ll get asked a lot of times in an interview or in my classes or at a conference, you know, you’re talking about Woodsmoke and how bad it is or how bad potentially.

Do you sit around a campfire? Do you know, does your family partake in campfires while you’re camping? Of course, we do. Again, this gets back to that central sort of idea of toxicology, dose direction, duration, and frequency. So let’s talk, let’s talk about dose first. While in firefighters job is to engage in with a fire.

They’re going to try to stay away from the fire as much as possible. They’re going to try to stay out of the downwind side. Cause obviously, that’s going to be the way that the fire’s moving, so they don’t want to be in the smoke. If I’m around a campfire, I don’t want to be around the smoke. I’m going to do my best not to have an extended duration of exposure, which impacts a dose.

As far as duration goes, wildland firefighters like that their job they’re going to work an entire season, likely around a fire. They’re going to work multiple seasons in a row. Cause that’s their career. They’re trying to make money. I’m exposed to a campfire on a good year. When I, when I’m trying to go out and go camping as much as possible, you know, maybe four or five weekends out of a year.

And that gets into frequency. So how many times in my lifetime will I be exposed to a fire? A how many times throughout my life will I be exposed to a campfire? You know, multiply that out as many good years as I have to go camping. And you know, we’re talking, you know, around 50 times maybe, whereas these firefighters.

You know, they’re exposed to year after year, day after day two. These guys work 14-hour shifts. They go on two-week rolls what they call a, a like a deployment. They call them roles 14 hours a day. These are extreme exposures that we’re dealing with. And unfortunately our, we used to say that the the dichotomy between occupational exposures, like wildland firefighters, Public health.

So community exposures were so different that we shouldn’t even compare them, but now we see communities that can be exposed for months at a time, year after year. The community exposures are starting to look a lot more like our wildland firefighter counterparts, which goes to. We definitely need to be tracking, studying, and monitoring their health because it’s probably going to shed light on what’s happening to us and our lungs and potentially the rest of our bodies.


[00:08:14] Russ: we’re going through, in some cases, six weeks of smelling smoke day after day after day. Sometimes you can’t even open your windows because there’s so much smoke, but still, there’s that exposure. Every single day, especially for those of us that are working outside or I’m spending a lot of time in the

[00:08:35] Luke: outdoors.

You sparked another idea in my head that I want to make sure that we clarify here. One of the big differences between community exposure and wild wildland, firefighter exposure, or other outdoor. Folks who work outside. So let’s list some of those off real quick. So we’re talking about agricultural workers.

We’re talking about construction workers. We’re talking about wildland firefighters and all of the other personnel that goes into helping to contain fires—the big difference between community exposure and wild, wild, and firefighter exposure. Let’s use you as an example. I’m assuming that for that month and a half, that you were being exposed, you weren’t outside, or if you were you’re outside infrequently, us standard is about 90% of our time is spent, spent indoors that’s in some kind of a structure or in your car.

And the reason that that is important is that. For the most part, your structures, your car, all of those have the capability of filtering air. And so it’s likely that their indoor air that you’re breathing nine out of 10 breaths every day is filtered to some capacity. Now. That depends on where you are.

That depends on what type of HPAC system or the air handling system that you have in your house, work car, any differences. Okay. So

[00:09:55] Russ: for those of us out there that are exposed for multiple days, multiple weeks, is there data out there? Sorta gives us a little information into what the future.

[00:10:06] Luke: holds for.

So there is some very, very new data that’s coming out right now. A lot of it’s coming out of the 2018 fires that happened in California. And there’s one specific example in a community in Montana. Researchers from the University of Montana, got a grant to go to this small rural community called Seeley lake.

And I’ll use that as an example cause these are colleagues of mine who did that study. They essentially, this community, Seeley lake was inundated with smoke for multiple weeks. There was so much smoke there that they were advised by local authorities that they should evacuate. And the majority of the community did not evacuate.

So there was this natural experiment essentially set up. And my colleagues went in they started asking some questions. They started asking questions about reasons why they didn’t evacuate. They started asking sort of biological questions. Like what was their current immune status? And then with the idea that they wanted to track the immune status of folks who were exposed in Seeley lake and folks who lived in that area but weren’t exposed.

So just outside of the Seeley lake valley in the path of the smoke, essentially to get a con controller as best control as they could. And what they’re finding, doing repeated measures from right after they got exposed to now a couple of years out, they see that their immune response was dysregulated.

And that for some. That dysregulation was persistent. So the military its effects, the negative effects of that smoke that they had on their lungs. Their ability for their lungs to respond appropriately was, was being mismanaged by their biological system. And that mismanagement continued. Even after you remove the smoke, the smoke was no longer in their valley.

And a year later, it was almost as if you took a snapshot of their immune system. AF right after it had been exposed to smoke. And if you looked at that snapshot a year later and you compared it to what was actually in their lungs a year later, they still look the same, and that we wouldn’t have necessarily expected that we would have expected the lung to be able to bounce back if you will.

Right. And in this case, that does not appear to be the case now that study’s ongoing. And we’ll see if, into the future, these folks get some type of return to.

[00:12:35] Russ: Wow. Yeah, that’s crazy. I bet. I look, you know externally I pull out that the filters that you mentioned earlier, you know like I have a filter on my car.

I just changed it. I don’t know, about two months after dealing with the fires last year. It was black. You know, it was unrecognizable as, like an air filter. There was so much on there with the pandemic. We were sort of all introduced to our own little filters, the masks that we wear, either the N95 or a cloth maths.

Do those actually help in this case with the

[00:13:11] Luke: wildfires, that is a very important and frequently asked question. I guess not a complex answer, but it’s one that has nuance. Right? So let’s break it. Let’s break these two masks apart and talk about what they’re both good for. So when we’re in the COVID pandemic, and we’re being advised by our authorities or public health authorities that we need to be wearing a mask for the purposes of containing the spread of a virus, you need to be wearing at minimum a cloth mask, and there are all kinds of resources.

The different layering techniques and why that works. And one of the common questions that I get is why does that mask work for a virus that is so, so small, and that is accurate. The actual virus on the individual virus particle is extremely strong, small, but it doesn’t travel alone. It travels in groups, and it travels normally agglomerated or stuck to. You can think of them as essentially spit part of.

And that’s why that cloth mask that’s why that cloth mask works. Now let’s compare that to the N95 masks that you’re going to be advised to wear during a wildfire smoke event. The N 95 mask gets its name because it scrubs out 95% of the airborne particles that are capable of traveling deep into the lungs.

So, this is very different than just a cloth mask, which would probably scrub out less than 5% of those particles. It’s it would do a pretty good job on the larger part. But you already have a system in place for scrubbing out those large particles, and that’s your nose and your nose hair. And you know that from being in a dirty place for a while, you know, you go blow your nose, the tissues, all dirty, you know that your nose is doing a pretty good job at, at scrubbing out those large particles.

So another small caveat to this, about those in 95. Is the folks who listen to this podcast won’t may not know this, but I have a beard. And that’s a very important feature to think about when you’re talking about an in 95 in 95 need to be essentially fit tested. So you have to go to an industrial hygienist or another author.

A person who checks the actual fitment of the mass, not just the size and shape of your face, but also the seal. And there’s some training that’s involved in that. And so, a guy like me with a beard will not ever get a satisfactory fitment of a mask. All of the particles just are able to go around the mask, through my beard, and then into my nose and mouth, providing me limited to no.

Protection. So those are the two types of masks and what they’re good for. It’s a little bit of a nuanced answer, but it’s really important for folks to know.

[00:16:04] Russ: that. Yeah, yeah, no, I also have a beard, you know, maybe what we need to do is like have these like reverse goatees. So that just underneath the mask,

[00:16:12] Luke: that would be, that would make a great cartoon, I think.

[00:16:15] Russ: Yeah. Yeah, it would. Hey, we’re going to take it a short break here. We’ve got more to talk about on this topic. We’ll be right back.

[00:17:15] Russ: Thanks for listening. And thanks for subscribing to learning more where each episode, we bring you a news story about people, inventions, pop culture, and life. I’m Russ.

And this week, I’m talking to Luke Montrose. He’s an assistant professor of community and environmental health at Boise state university and an environmental toxicologist telling us about the air that we breathe. So, okay. I went down to Los Angeles just a couple of weeks ago. And looking over this. There was definitely less smart.

Now I was only there for a day, so I just saw it a little bit, but you know; usually I’m used to not being actually able to see the buildings when I drive through LA anyway, continue down the road. And then, all of a sudden, now I’m dealing with wildfire smoke for so long. We have been talking about clean air, and you know, the EPA X, long ago of trying to make our air better.

Are the wildfires just kind of taking all of this progress that we’ve made? Away some

[00:18:16] Luke: of the most recent projections that I’ve seen on wildfire smoke and its contribution to the overall amount of particulate matter that the United States is exposed to throughout the year, suggest that we’re on track for wildfire smoke to reach 50% of our annual particulate matter.

If, think of it like, wait, if it were all put on a scale, all other sources on one side. And wildfire, on the other, they would balance each other out. Now what’s even more disturbing about that is these projections suggest that in some Western communities that wildfire smoke may make up as much as 70% of their annual.

A weight of particulate matter. And this really gets at that idea that we talked about, where I said that different types of particulate matter impact our body in different ways. This is because you can think of particulate matter like a vehicle or a car that’s carrying passengers. And in this case, those passengers are chemicals, and that chemical profile is different.

Based on where the particulate matter was generated from. So wildfire smoke generated from a wildfire has a very different profile chemical profile on the outside of particles than does urban particularly, let’s say, car exhaust. And what we’re finding there was just a study recently published from a group in California that looked at some recent California wildfires and then looked at what.

Rates of hospitalization, mortality, and some other aspects were it was a wildfire when there wasn’t a wildfire, and they were able to model out essentially non-wildfire days, they were able to compare what, what are they, what are the health metrics when it’s just urban particulate matter?

And what are the health metrics when it’s just wildfire? They found that wildfire smoke days produced more hospital visits and mortality. This is small, this was a relatively small study in just California. But this is troubling data when we think about this transition to more wildfire smoke by weight compared to all other particulate matter sources.

And we see that wildfire smoke is particularly toxic. And then we look at what’s been done so far and we, and we really. We know, we know a lot about urban particulate matter, but we really don’t know that much about wildfire smoke. So I think that this is a timely thing to consider, and hopefully, we’re able to put some more effort behind producing the types of data that we would need to make some of these conclusions.


[00:20:46] Russ: just jeez. So, okay. Let’s, let’s go to this if I were to give you a magic one. And environmental toxicologist, what would you do? How would you help to address the issue of wildfire smoke?

[00:21:04] Luke: So that’s a great question. There’s there would be a reactionary approach, which would be, well, we can’t fix the wildfires or the smoke, but we could maybe help.

And so these would be intervention and money for intervention and mitigation strategies and educational resources for all the people who are going to be exposed to smoke. But reactionary strategies are most often not as effective as you know, mitigation strategies that go toward them, of the cause.

And in this case, there’s an open debate on what that is, which makes answering your question problematic because you have one camp of people who say, you know, this could be climate change. Do you have one camp of people who say this is more about forest management or mismanagement over the last five or six decades?

And then you have folks who say, you know, this is the way that we put out fires. Is actually causing this so fire management. And so it depends on which camp you’re in as to which strategy we might, you know, proceed with. And I think what we need to do is come together and whether you’re in any, either of those three camps, there’s probably a solution that we could all agree on.

If we take the, the buzzwords or the hot button issues. If, if, if climate change rubs you the wrong way, you know, let’s talk about you know, let’s talk about drought-related issues. I think we can all agree that we’re in the middle of like a 20 year in some of our Western states, we’re in a 20-year drought, whether you agree with, with the folks on whether that’s due to climate change or global warming here, that’s neither here nor there.

If you’re forest management if you’re in that. Let’s talk about the types of strategies that we could be used across the state borders so that everyone’s on the same page that we should be implementing. And when it comes to fire management, let’s talk about that. W when should we let fires burn, and when should we put them out?

What are the, you know, the tools and the matrices that we need to use to address those types of issues? And then let’s not forget about, you know, the community impacts of this. So when we’re going to let these fires burn, what can we be doing to protect the downwind communities? It’s going to be a comprehensive look at this question.

That’s going to result in a viable solution, and fighting between those three camps is not going to do anything. To help find resolve as

[00:23:38] Russ: far as what we do in the meantime is to you know, limit, you said what dose duration and frequency try to stay out of this if, if we can, as much as possible, what other things can we do to kind of protect our own health?

And let’s say the health of our kids.

[00:23:55] Luke: Yeah, this is very, very important. And what I tell colleagues, friends students. You, you should empower yourself. You should become a citizen scientist, and you should look for any resource you can to help bolster your knowledge on how you can lower your exposure to wildfire smoke.

And I’ll give you a few examples of how to do that. One is to have an HVAC professional come and service your air conditioner and furnace. And while they’re out there, ask them. What is the highest level of filtration? So they measure filtration in what’s called a Merv, and Merv stands for a minimum efficiency reporting value.

So ask your HVAC personnel. What’s the highest Merv rating filter I can put in my HVAC system. The next thing I would do is look into purchasing a HEPA air filter, a standalone air filtration unit. I would encourage you to think about where do you spend the most time in your house. If that’s your living room and you’re only going to buy one, put it in your living room.

In my house, we have two; we have one in our living room and one in our bedroom. The next thing I would do is. Somewhere in this conversation, we were discussing whether or not indoor air quality is actually better than outdoor air quality. The best way to find that out is to measure it. And there are so many cool new, low-cost monitors on the market.

Today, you can pick these things up for free. So $100, and there definitely aren’t a regulatory monitor. They have the limitations, but for home use and for your own educational purposes, ask yourself, what’s my air inside today. What’s my air outside. What’s the air like that at the gym. What is the air like at night?

Place of business. Now, if you’re using your one monitor to do all of those different tests, whether or not it perfectly matches with a regulatory unit that your department of environmental quality uses really doesn’t matter all that much because you’re comparing apples to apples, to apples, to apples.

Right? And so, by doing that, you are empowering yourself to learn more about the air. And hopefully, that motivates you to think about some of those mitigation strategies that I mentioned.

[00:26:11] Russ: buying one of these devices is one way of doing it, but there are also places online where people can go.

[00:26:16] Luke: So another thing that people can do is follow along either on Twitter or Facebook or just on their internet webpage with your local department of environmental quality.

Your state may have something like Idaho has, which is called the Idaho smoked blog, where they consolidate a lot of information on where fires are burning, where the smoke is going and what your local air quality is. If you don’t have that in your community, you can go to the EPA resource.

They have a smoke since act, and they also have an air now app, and both of these will tell you about your local community air. And then there’s a lot of new sort of crowdsourced resources on the internet. For example, purple air is a fairly low-cost monitor that has such a robust network that it’s now being adopted by a lot.

Local authorities, you can go onto the purple air website, and you can view the purple air map, which will show you air quality from all around the world, including if there is a monitor in your neighborhood.

[00:27:16] Russ: Awesome. And Luke was nice enough to provide links to some various places where you can go to get air monitors, a link over to purple air, and other resources.

All of those links are in the description. Luke. Thank you so much for joining me today and helping us learn or about wildfires and our health.

[00:27:37] Luke: Thank you so much.

[00:27:38] Russ: All right, we continue the conversation next week. It’s a three-part series. We’re talking about climate change. Last week we talked how it’s going to affect our finances.

If you miss that show, definitely do go check that one out. And next week, you’re going to want to hang in there for this one. We’re going to learn about sea-level rise and all of these floods, all of these issues with water. Well, and in some places, lack of water, like here in California. That is next week.

The best way to remember to listen to Learning More is to subscribe. And the best way to help us out is to share the show and also review the show wherever you can. Oh yeah. Also, check out our daily show. This is today. There’s a link available for that in the podcast description. Thanks for listening.

I’m Russ. And I’ll talk to you next time.

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