Wildfire smoke was more strongly linked to increases in children’s respiratory health issues than airborne particles from other sources, according to a new study.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego aimed to learn more about the potential impact of airborne particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter and produced by sources including wildfires and traffic. While the particles are known to be harmful to children’s developing lungs, the team wanted to see if there was a difference based on the source.
They compared data on pediatric respiratory issues treated at Rady Children’s Hospital network emergency and urgent care facilities from 2011-’17 to data about daily air quality and wildfires in San Diego County, California. During the study period, there were 45 wildfires, none of which were extreme.
The team’s findings were published today in “Fine Particles in Wildfire Smoke and Pediatric Respiratory Health in California,” (Aguilera R, et al. Pediatrics, https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2020-027128).
The study showed each 10-unit increase in airborne fine particles from wildfire smoke was linked to a 30% increase in the rate of pediatric visits to the hospital network for respiratory issues. The same increase in airborne fine particles from other sources was linked to a 3.7% increase in visits.
During wildfires, there was a significant increase in reported coughs. The biggest spikes in visits to hospitals and urgent care facilities were among children ages 5 and younger.
“Because children breathe more air per minute than adults, and have lungs that are still
developing, they are especially vulnerable to health effects during wildfires, particularly in the case of children who are very young or who already have respiratory diseases,” authors wrote.
There has been some debate about whether wildfire smoke is more toxic than other emissions. Previous studies have found that volatile organic compounds in wildfire smoke may contribute to the toxicity. Authors expressed concern with the new findings, noting climate change is expected to increase wildfire frequency and severity.
“By understanding the impacts of wildfire smoke exposure on vulnerable pediatric populations, researchers and policy makers can develop evidence-based guidelines for mitigating risk and increasing public awareness of wildfire impacts,” they wrote. “Public health strategies to protect susceptible individuals could involve early warning systems and community coordination with schools and healthcare providers.”