Again, here we go with the masks — for some. Canadian wildfires have created a cover of smoke over much of the eastern part of North America, and the East End has not been spared from air unfit to breathe. Yesterday morning, the federal Air Quality Index rated the conditions in our region as “unhealthy,” a level at which outdoor activities should be kept light and short. People sensitive to smoke, pregnant, and those with heart or lung disease were urged to stay indoors.
Special caution was urged for people who regularly work outside and whose particulate exposure was already high. This would include the virtual army of landscape laborers and those in the construction and maintenance trades, few of whom wear masks regularly, despite working in dusty conditions or in a haze created by their gas-powered leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, mowers, and so on.
Considering that the largely immigrant work force may not have access to the masks that will shield them from particulates that can lodge deep in the lungs, the fires add to the sense that there is a silent killer lurking among members of this vulnerable portion of our local population. The financially comfortable can sit out the smoke, protected by their HVAC systems, but not everyone has that luxury.
Among the immediate health effects of breathing in wildfire smoke is coughing, stinging eyes, a scratchy throat, runny nose, sinus pain, and wheezing. Headaches are also common, as are asthma attacks, fatigue, and an increased heartbeat. Longer-term effects include lung inflammation, and worsening pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Because of their size, tiny smoke particles can be inhaled deep into a person’s lungs and enter the bloodstream. There, they may spike the risk of heart attack, stroke, and infection, leading to premature death.
Wildfires have massive economic costs as well. According to an in-depth study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, increased federal spending on fire suppression threatens fiscal stability and impedes cost-saving efforts. For example, the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service nearly doubled their combined spending on wildfire management in the last decade. Costs of fighting fires sap money from state and local budgets, cutting into programs intended to reduce fire risk in the first place.
Those who cannot wait out the smoke indoors because of their jobs or do not have access to or information about masks deserve to be protected, too. Officials and civic groups should quickly find ways to help them. Employers should provide proper masks to their workers. Every single one of us on the East End deserves clean air to breathe.