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Heat, air pollution and your health

Everyone is vulnerable to complications during times of high pollution, ozone and wildfire smoke.

This piece previously was posted on the Health Feed blog

Hazy skies during the summer months should be as concerning as they look. The lingering hue could be heat, elevated ozone air pollution, or particulate pollution related to wildfire smoke, which can cause potentially severe health effects. In Utah, the combination of all three is plaguing the air.

These conditions can coexist because heat increases ozone levels and smoke from wildfires are triggered when conditions are hot and dry. “It is something we are experiencing more frequently due to climate change and hotter and drier conditions,” says Cheryl Pirozzi, M.D., a pulmonologist at University of Utah Health.

Several health effects could be triggered due to these environmental exposures, including:

Heat and air pollution

  • Heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke
  • Exacerbation of underlying diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart disease

Ozone air pollution

  • Hospitalization for respiratory disease
  • Pneumonia or respiratory infections in both adults and children
  • Exacerbations of lung disease such as asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, and pulmonary fibrosis
  • Increase of death from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases

Wildfire smoke and particulate pollution

  • Risk for respiratory disease
  • Emergency visits and hospitalization for asthma and COPD
  • Susceptibility to respiratory infections
  • Cardiovascular hospitalizations
  • Mortality

Everyone is vulnerable to experiencing complications during times of high pollution, ozone, and wildfire smoke. Those who are most at risk of severe health effects are older adults, children, pregnant women, people with underlying heart and lung disease, and those who work outdoors.

The best way to protect yourself during times of poor air quality is to avoid activity outside when air pollution and heat are high. If you want to recreate outside, morning is best when temperatures are cooler and air pollution levels are lower. It’s important to pay attention to your body. If you are experiencing concerning symptoms such as troubled breathing, cough, or fever, get medical attention. Stay hydrated as well.

Certain well-fitting face masks with particulate filters such as N95 and N99 masks can help reduce exposure to particulate pollution. However, they do not reduce exposure to gaseous pollutants or heat, and Pirozzi says overall health benefits haven’t been well established. Using HEPA filters in the home can also help reduce levels of particulate pollution.