PORTLAND, Sept. 10, 2022 — Extreme heat and dry conditions are sparking wildfire breakouts across Oregon and southwest Washington this weekend. While those fires are threatening homes, businesses and land, according to the American Heart Association, they’re also threatening heart health.
Several studies following wildfires in recent years linked smoke exposure to an increased risk of sudden cardiac arrest and a higher volume of visits to local emergency rooms for cardiovascular disease-related causes.
- A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2020 found that exposure to heavy smoke during wildfires raised the risk of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests up to 70%. The risk was elevated among both men and women, among adults 35-64 years old and in communities with lower socioeconomic status.
- Previous findings from the same research group noted that wildfire smoke exposure was associated with increased rates of emergency room visits, not just for breathing trouble, but also ischemic heart disease, irregular heart rhythm, heart failure, pulmonary embolism and stroke. ER visits increased 42% for heart attacks and 22% for ischemic heart disease within a day of exposure to dense wildfire smoke. The increase was most notable for adults age 65 and older, according to the study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2018.
“While most people are aware of the respiratory health dangers of breathing wildfire smoke, we often forget the what impact it may have on short- and long-term cardiovascular health. It’s important for people to recognize there is an increased risk,” said Nandita Gupta, MD, Hillsboro Medical Center, associate chief medical officer and American Heart Association president for Oregon and southwest Washington. “Wildfire smoke contains a lot of pollutants including fine, microscopic particles linked to cardiovascular risk. As the fires spread, they aren’t just burning trees and woodlands – they’re also igniting buildings, cars and recreational vehicles, entire community infrastructures. Many of these fires are massive and burning out of control, with that contaminated smoke traveling miles beyond the immediately affected area.”
People with underlying cardiovascular disease risk factors may be at risk for an acute cardiovascular event when exposed to wildfire smoke. According to the American Heart Association, recognizing the signs of a heart attack or stroke are important, and if you or someone you’re with is experiencing serious symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately. In areas affected by wildfires, road closures may make it especially difficult to get to a hospital and emergency personnel will know the most up-to-date information to get needed help. Knowing and performing CPR in the event of a cardiac arrest is also helpful.
Wildfires in rural areas can be especially challenging for several reasons. Emergency response times may be longer due to travel distances, and fires may burn out of control longer before being noticed in rural areas due to lower population densities.
To reduce exposure to wildfire smoke, Gupta advises people who are not in immediate danger to stay indoors with doors and windows closed, to use high-efficiency air filters in air conditioning systems. Avoid exertion, keep well hydrated and consider seeking other shelter if your home does not have an air conditioner and it’s too warm to stay inside. Follow local law enforcement orders and make early preparations to evacuate the area in case that becomes necessary.
“Smoke from a wildfire can travel hundreds of miles, and affect communities far from a fire,” Mike Shaw, Oregon Department of Forestry Fire Protection Division Chief, said. “If you need to evacuate your home due to smoke or wildfire, make sure to remember your medication, a first aid kit, and a list of important contacts like family and your doctor.”
According to Gupta, being prepared may not only keep you safe from the fires, it’s another way to protect your heart, because mental and physical stress also takes a toll on your cardiovascular health and can weaken your overall immune system.
The American Heart Association has a number of resources to help at heart.org.
Studies published in the American Heart Association’s scientific journals are peer-reviewed. The statements and conclusions in each manuscript are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the Association’s policy or position. The Association makes no representation or guarantee as to their accuracy or reliability. The Association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific Association programs and events. The Association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content. Revenues from pharmaceutical and biotech companies, device manufacturers and health insurance providers and the Association’s overall financial information are available here.
- AHA health information: Wildfire resources
- AHA health information: Community Emergency Resources
- AHA Scientific Statement: Personal-Level Protective Actions Against Particulate Matter Air Pollution Exposure (Nov. 2020)
- AHA Scientific Statement (Update): Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease (May 2010)
- Follow AHA/ASA news on Twitter @HeartNews
About the American Heart Association
The American Heart Association is a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable health in all communities. Through collaboration with numerous organizations, and powered by millions of volunteers, we fund innovative research, advocate for the public's health and share lifesaving resources. The Dallas-based organization has been a leading source of health information for nearly a century. Connect with us on heart.org, Facebook, Twitter or by calling 1-800-AHA-USA1.
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