MONDAY, May 16, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Bushfires, like the one currently raging in New Mexico, are known to cause a spike in breathing problems and heart attacks in their immediate aftermath for people who live near them.
Now, new Canadian research shows that these fires may also increase the risk of lung and brain cancer over time.
People who lived within about 30 miles of a wildfire in the past 10 years were 10% more likely to develop brain cancer and had a 5% higher risk of developing lung cancer, compared to people who lived far from these fires.
“We saw a consistent signal of lung and brain cancer risk among people living near wildfires,” said study author Scott Wieschenthal. He is an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University in Montreal. “We know that a whole range of carcinogens are released during wildfires that may increase the risk of these cancers.”
Wildfires typically start in forests, grasslands, or prairies, and are often caused by campfires left unattended, cigarette butts still lit, sparks from power lines, or arson.
The study authors noted that these fires tend to occur in similar parts of the country, so people living in these areas could be constantly exposed to potentially cancer-causing wildfire pollutants.
To make matters worse, “Bushfires are a frequent occurrence and cover large parts of the country, and the bushfire season also starts early,” Weichenthal said. It is believed that these changes are likely due to global warming and climate change.
For the study, Weichenthal and colleagues (including doctoral student Jill Kurciak, who led the analysis) traced 20 years of data on more than two million Canadians to learn more about how wildfires affect people’s risk of developing some types of cancer.
The study was not designed to look at specific toxins in smoke that may increase cancer risks. “There is still a lot to learn about the type of pollution that remains after a fire,” Wiechenthal said.
It’s not just about outdoor air pollution: “Forest fires also pollute water, soil, and indoor air,” he noted.
“We know more about the short-term effects of wildfires than we do about their long-term impact,” said Dr. Marie Brunecki, who reviewed the new study. She directs air pollution and health research at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
In the day and days immediately after the bushfires, there is a slight increase in hospital visits for asthma attacks and exacerbations of COPD and other lung diseases, Brunecki said.
“There is strong literature showing an increase in heart attacks, heart attacks, and strokes among people exposed to bushfire smoke, especially those with a pre-existing condition,” she explained.
Anyone who lives near bushfire smoke may experience burning eyes, runny nose, coughing, and/or difficulty breathing.
what exactly at The smoke depends on what’s burning, Brunecki said, but “in general, wildfires contain small particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause health problems.
“There are several toxins that could be in smoke that have already been independently associated with an increase in lung cancer, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. [PAHs],” she added.
There are steps you can take to protect your health if you live in a part of the country where wildfires are common. According to Prunicki, this includes understanding indoor air quality and, if it’s poor, using an air purifier or a high-efficiency air (HEPA) filter in your air conditioning or central heating unit. These filters can help remove pollutants from the air you breathe.
Bronicki also said, “If you have underlying heart or lung disease, make sure you have your medications at the ready, too.”
It’s also important to reduce the risk of wildfires when you’re enjoying the great outdoors, including putting out campfires with water until it’s cool enough to make sure they actually come out.
The new study was published in the May 2022 issue of The Lancet Planetary Health. The Lancet Planetary Health.
Subscribe to local air quality notices via the Environmental Protection Agency.
SOURCES: Scott Weichenthal, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Marie Bronicki, MD, PhD, director, Air Pollution and Health Research, Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA; The The Lancet Planetary HealthMay 2022