Some Populations Are More at Risk
An NPR analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data showed that one in seven Americans experienced at least one day of unhealthy air this summer.
But the risk of adverse health effects is not shared equally among exposed residents. CHI’s 2019 Health and Climate Index and 2017 report, Colorado’s Climate and Colorado’s Health, outline several sensitive groups that are vulnerable due to heightened smoke levels. CHI found that Coloradans who work outside, live in low-income communities, have preexisting health conditions, or are pregnant are among those who face increased health risks from wildfire smoke.
And Coloradans have another health risk to worry about in 2020: COVID-19. The presence of a global pandemic throws another wrench into the challenges faced by sensitive populations. Scientists note that a weakened immune response from extended exposure to wildfire smoke can exacerbate the impact of the virus.
Individual, Local, and State Policies Can Reduce Risks
Health officials and policymakers have many health risks to juggle in 2020. The projected trend of more intense and large wildfires, in addition to the unknown trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic, is daunting. However, steps can be taken to protect the air we breathe.
Wildfires are a natural phenomenon in Colorado and the West, but proper fire mitigation practices and awareness of health effects can reduce the damage done to both our forests and our lungs.
The Colorado State Forest Service (CSFS) has been working to improve public awareness about wildfire mitigation practices for residents who live in WUIs. CSFS partnered with the National Fire Protection Association to certify 150 Colorado communities as FireWise, meaning they have taken steps to reduce wildfire risks to their homes and businesses.
State legislators have also taken action to improve wildfire mitigation practices with the passage of House Bill 19-1006. The bill committed the state to funding forest restoration projects and grant programs that aim to reduce wildfire risk to the 2.9 million Coloradans who live in WUIs.
Hospitals and community clinics that treat higher rates of sensitive populations can communicate the health risks related to wildfire smoke and also take the necessary measures to prepare for increased visits during high smoke days.
At an individual level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people stay up-to-date and pay attention to air quality conditions in their area. Awareness of current air quality levels can allow residents, especially those who are sensitive populations, to plan accordingly by avoiding unnecessary trips outdoors. Coloradans can sign up for air quality alerts or check the current AQI at Airnow.gov.
In 2020, many Americans have been confronted by the importance of air quality to health and overall quality of life. The clean air and clear skies enjoyed by many Coloradans were a silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. Now, millions of people are seeing and feeling the far-reaching effects of wildfire smoke. That hard-won awareness creates an opportunity for Colorado’s policymakers, businesses, and residents to take steps to support healthy air quality – now and in the future.
Related Blogs and Research