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New Mexico Wildfire Smoke Could Be Serious Health Hazard

Wildfire smoke can cause a number of health problems, ranging from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious concerns, such as reduced lung function, bronchitis, asthma attacks, heart failure and even neurological disorders.

(TNS) - As New Mexico residents in areas affected by wildfires grapple with the destruction of their homes and land, officials also warn of health dangers they may face from prolonged exposure to heavy smoke and the high risks posed by charred debris.

Wildfire smoke can cause a number of health problems, ranging from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious concerns, such as reduced lung function, bronchitis, asthma attacks, heart failure and even neurological disorders.

Dr. Matthew Campen , a professor in the University of New Mexico's College of Pharmacy , said most health effects from wildfires are caused by repeated exposure to smoke — a concerning prospect as fires become more common and burn longer.

"The fire in terms of acres burned in this country have gone up steadily over the last 30 or 40 years, and the last four years have just been worse," Campen said. "I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing more and more people with with lung issues, issues related to mood disorder, cardiovascular effects and things like that."

Wildfire emissions can contain microplastics and metallic particles, such as iron, aluminum and magnesium. These particles can make their way into the bloodstream and reach the brain, putting people at risk of problems including premature aging, depression and even psychosis.

Campen is leading research on the long-term effects wildfire emissions have on the brain. He is investigating how smoke particles can erode the blood-brain barrier, potentially increasing a person's chances of developing Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with preexisting respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to smoke exposure.

Campen said children "may not grow their lungs as well as they should. They may have what we call cardiopulmonary deficits or an inability to breathe as deeply, and that could make it difficult to exercise."

COVID-19 also has been as concern for Campen, as smoke is known to impair a person's ability to generate antibodies and immune responses that protect against viruses.

"We're in the middle of a COVID surge, and there's another one probably coming in the winter. How does this affect our immunity or our ability to make use of vaccines?" Campen said.

The New Mexico Department of Health recommends avoiding smoky conditions whenever possible by staying indoors and using air purifiers.

State officials recommend using the 5-3-1 Visibility Method to determine if air conditions are safe:

* If smoke limits visibility to five miles, those who are vulnerable should keep outdoor activity to a minimum.

* At three miles of visibility, adults, teenagers and older children should minimize outdoor activity while those who are vulnerable should stay indoors.

* If visibility is reduced to one mile, everyone should stay indoors.

The Environmental Protection Agency offers instructions on its website on how to make a do-it-yourself air cleaner. Residents also can get up-to-date information on air quality and smoke plumes in their area at

Campen said wearing N95 masks can help in situations where smoke cannot be avoided.

State officials with the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management also have warned residents to avoid debris from wildfires, which can have immediate and long-term health risks.

"We know people are anxious to return to their homes and assess the damage caused by recent, devastating wildfires," Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Carla Walton said. "They often want to sift through the debris to see if anything is salvageable, but we strongly caution against it. The ash and debris could be dangerous or toxic."

Particles of dust, dirt and soot can cause skin, nose and throat irritation. Debris from homes can contain toxic substances including arsenic, lead, copper and mercury. In addition, some substances like asbestos and cadmium found in homes have been known to cause cancer, according to the homeland security agency.

Propane tanks, batteries, air conditioners and household chemicals such as cleaning products can also be hazardous after being exposed to high temperatures.

"Property owners who want to search debris for possible salvageable items should do so with caution and with proper protective gear," the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management stated in a news release.

The department recommends wearing air-purifying respirator masks, as well as gloves, long shirts, long pants and safety eyewear — and changing shoes and clothing immediately after leaving the fire-damaged site to avoid contaminating other areas.

Children should not be exposed to wildfire ash or debris, even with protective gear, the agency added.

The department also advises property owners not to begin debris removal until they receive approval from authorities because this could jeopardize eligibility for future debris removal assistance.


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