As a huge plume of smoke from over 400 Canadian wildfires swept south and turned New York City into a landscape that resembled Mars more than Earth, heart experts warned that air pollution can damage your heart as much as it damages your lungs.
It's obvious that wildfires can affect breathing and respiratory health, but exposure to this smoke can also cause or worsen heart problems, the American Heart Association said in an alert issued Wednesday.
"Most people think of breathing problems and respiratory health dangers from wildfire smoke, but it's important to recognize the impact on cardiovascular health, as well," said Dr. Comilla Sasson, vice president for science and innovation at the American Heart Association and a practicing emergency medicine physician. "Wildfire smoke contains a lot of pollutants, including fine, microscopic particles linked to cardiovascular risk."
Sasson recommended that people in areas where the smoke is thick or starting to build check the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's zip code-level tracking map of current air quality at airnow.gov. You should also stay informed about any special alerts sent by the local health department, she suggested.
Reduce exposure to wildfire smoke by staying indoors and keeping doors and windows closed, she added, and use high-efficiency air filters in air conditioning systems or portable air cleaners.
Don't exert yourself during these smoke-filled days and stay well-hydrated. If your home does not have an air conditioner and it's too warm to stay inside, consider staying somewhere else temporarily.
Pets may also be affected by the smoke, so it's a good idea to bring them indoors as much as possible, Sasson added.
"While these types of wildfires and the extent of their smoke reach can't always be predicted, protecting yourself and your family from poor air quality throughout the year is something to consider," Sasson said. "In the American Heart Association's 2020 scientific statement on air pollution exposure, we note that one of the most effective measures is the use of portable air cleaners, which have been shown to reduce indoor particulate matter by as much as 50-60%. Given their modest upfront cost [$50-200] and potential benefits in reducing cardiopulmonary outcomes, this measure has a high benefit for the cost."
Previous research has demonstrated that the cost can be heavy.
In one 2020 study, researchers found that exposure to heavy smoke during wildfires raised the risk of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests up to 70%. That risk was elevated in both men and women, among adults aged 35 to 64 and in communities with lower socioeconomic status.
Earlier findings showed that wildfire smoke exposure was associated with increased rates of emergency room visits for heart disease, irregular heart rhythm, heart failure, pulmonary embolism and stroke.
Those ER visits increased 42% for heart attacks and 22% for ischemic heart disease within a day of exposure to dense wildfire smoke. This was especially concerning for adults 65 and up, according to that study, which was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
Recognizing the signs of a heart attack or stroke is important, the AHA advised. If you or someone you're with is experiencing serious symptoms, call 911 immediately. Learn CPR so that you can be prepared.
Most Americans are not directly impacted by the wildfires burning in Canada, but the exposure to this lingering smoke can be extremely harmful and shouldn't be taken for granted, Sasson said.
"Protect yourself, be alert and prepared," she said.