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Your Call

The long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke

Canadian wildfire smoke in Minneapolis, May 2023
Chad Davis
Canadian wildfire smoke in Minneapolis, May 2023

On this edition of Your Call, we discuss the health hazards of wildfire smoke. Last week, the Bay Area experienced its first taste of this year’s fire season with the Air Quality Index numbers soaring into a range deemed unhealthy for the general population.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), wildfires are bigger, more severe, and more common today in the western United States than at any time in the last four decades. The recent fires in Maui that destroyed 80 percent of the seaside town of Lahaina are just the most recent tragic example. In California, nearly half of the state’s largest fires on record occurred in the past five years.

But immediate destruction from wildfires is only part of the picture. Wildfire smoke can have lasting impacts on human health. A new study from Lancet Planet Health found that smoke from the world’s worsening wildfires is now killing 33,510 people every year. It not only exacerbates respiratory illnesses like asthma, but is also linked to increased risk of cancer, heart attacks, and preterm birth.

So what can we do to keep ourselves safe as wildfires rage on?


Quinn Redwoods, founder and director of Mask Oakland

Julie Johnson, journalist, staff writer at San Francisco Chronicle’s climate and environment desk

Dr. Neeta Thakur, associate professor of pulmonary and critical medicine at UCSF, medical director of the outpatient pulmonary clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, co-director of the Partnerships for Research in Implementation Science for Equity (PRISE) Center

Dr. Sheri Weiser, internist and professor of medicine in the HIV, Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine division at UCSF, co-founding director of the University of California Center on Climate Change, Health and Equity

Web Resources: 

Grist: When wildfires choke California, this activist gets masks to those who need them most

San Francisco Chronicle: Firefighters are being poisoned by wildfire smoke. We’re doing little to protect their health

University of California San Francisco: Unmasking the Dangers: The Hidden Health Risks of Wildfire Smoke

Grist: Wildfire smoke claims more than 33,000 lives each year, new study finds