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Summer wildfires drove up asthma cases in NYC emergency rooms. What does that mean for CT?

Wildfire occurring In Western United States and Canada causes hazy skies over the Midtown Manhattan skyscraper in the left side of East River and Long Island City in the right side on July 20, 2021 in New York City.
Toshi Sasaki / Getty Images
Wildfire occurring In Western United States and Canada causes hazy skies over the Midtown Manhattan skyscraper in the left side of East River and Long Island City in the right side on July 20, 2021 in New York City.

In early June, Connecticut saw hazy orange skies and days of bad air, as wildfires in Canada covered the region in smoke. Now, a new Yale-led study shows how the respiratory health of people in nearby New York City suffered as the air quality diminished. Experts warn similar impacts could play out in Connecticut.

Looking at citywide hospital data from June 6-8, the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found there were more asthma-related emergency room visits in New York City as regional air quality worsened from wildfire smoke.

But it’s not just New York City that was impacted, said Michelle Bell, the study's co-author and professor of Environmental Health at Yale’s School of the Environment.

“The air quality impacts of wildfires are widespread, as are the subsequent public health burden,” Bell said, in a statement.

“Although several studies have examined the impact of the Canadian wildfires on New York City specifically, the smoke plumes and affected populations are much larger,” Bell said.

In June, Connecticut health officials said there was an uptick in emergency room visits for respiratory ailments as air quality reached “unhealthy” levels of pollution from wildfire smoke. State officials urged residents to stay inside for several days to avoid exposure.

When bad air is present, people need to know as soon as possible to protect their health, said Dr. Kai Chen, the study lead author who teaches at the Yale School of Public Health.

“Our study has really tried to provide timely information, to allow timely communication about the health damages of wildfire smoke, so people can really take precautions to limit their exposure,” Chen said.

Exact hospital data from the most intense period of the summer wildfires has not been available in Connecticut as quickly as New York City. But Chen said the findings heed a warning to people living downwind of wildfires about how fine particulate matter pollution harms health.

Those tiny particles can affect the heart and lungs, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), exposure can lead to irritated airways, and difficulty breathing – which is especially bad for kids, older adults, and those with heart or lung diseases.

Wildfires are amplifying the bad air that has been an issue for decades in parts of Connecticut.

According to the EPA’s environmental justice mapping tool, parts of Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford counties already see a higher level of fine particulate matter compared to other areas. Communities of color often bear a disproportionate amount of the health impacts from bad air.

As wildfires burn hundreds of miles away, research shows that the longer that wildfire smoke travels, the more harmful its health impacts can be due to exposure to more ultraviolet radiation.

But tracking health impacts from smoke is a challenging measurement to gather, since it’s hard to know exactly how much fine particulate matter people have been exposed to without extra technology, said Chris Migliaccio, a toxicologist who researches wildfire smoke at the University of Montana and was not affiliated with the study.

He says the Yale study’s findings mirror results out west, where wildfires are far more common.

Still, Migliaccio said the cardiovascular impacts of smoke are a concern for the Northeast as climate change drives up the risk, and size, of wildfires.

“The fact that the East Coast is now getting exposed to this, unfortunately, probably means it's not going to be the last,” Migliaccio said. “We need to figure out if it has long term effects for people who have never experienced this before, or if it puts them at risk for subsequent exposures.”

As Connecticut Public's state government reporter, Michayla focuses on how policy decisions directly impact the state’s communities and livelihoods. She has been with Connecticut Public since February 2022, and before that was a producer and host for audio news outlets around New York state. When not on deadline, Michayla is probably outside with her rescue dog, Elphie. Thoughts? Jokes? Tips? Email msavitt@ctpublic.org.

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