Throughout the United States, cities are currently facing one of the hottest summers in decades. While concerns about rising temperatures have lingered for years, the summer of 2023 has seen heat records shattered nationwide. This increased heat presents a heightened risk of extensive wildfires, and several states, including California, Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon, have already witnessed the outbreak of wildfires. Importantly, this wildfire season follows a record-breaking season last year throughout the western U.S.
For residents in these areas, wildfires not only jeopardize their homes and possessions but also pose health risks. When the air becomes filled with smoke, so do people’s lungs. These extensive fires can result in alarmingly poor air quality, affecting not only physical health but also potentially disrupting sleep patterns. With no relief in sight from the persistent dry, hot weather— exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, which is making the West hotter and drier—understanding how wildfires can threaten a restful night’s sleep becomes increasingly crucial.
Why Wildfire Smoke Is Dangerous
Wildfires present a substantial risk to respiratory health, primarily due to the diverse range of irritants found in smoke, including particulate matter and hydrocarbons. The most significant danger comes from ultrafine particles inhaled during a fire, leading to nasal congestion and irritation in the eyes. What sets wildfires apart from other types of smoke is the release of numerous airborne chemicals, many of which are toxic. These chemicals can travel vast distances, posing a risk even for individuals not in close proximity to the fire.
The impact of wildfire smoke inhalation on health and sleep varies among individuals, but certain groups are particularly vulnerable, according to the CDC:
- People with preexisting heart or lung diseases, especially the elderly.
- Children, whose developing airways and higher breathing rates per pound of body weight increase susceptibility.
- Pregnant women.
Understanding these risks is crucial, given the potential health implications associated with exposure to wildfire smoke.