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Wildfire Smoke Linked to Coronavirus Infections, Deaths

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Smoke from a fire in the Evia forests in Greece, August 2021. Credit: Konstantinos Balalas/Greek Reporter

As if inhaling wildfire smoke wasn’t noxious enough, now we have another issue to worry about, as new research coming out on Friday says that thousands of coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths may have occurred in the US as a result of inhaling it.

The particulate matter that makes up wildfire smoke is the problem, researchers believe. Their studies, which were undertaken after the smoke from last year’s wildfires in the American west, were published today in the journal Science Advances.

The scientists say that last year’s unprecedented wildfire season in the western US may have contributed to more than 19,000 Covid-19 cases and 700 fatalities. The study is the the very first to quantify the link between inhaling small particulate matter from wildfire smoke and Covid-19 cases and deaths.

Disturbing Link Between Wildfire Smoke’s Particulate Matter and Coronavirus

As study author Francesca Dominici says inane interview with the Harvard Gazette, “The year 2020 brought unimaginable challenges in public health, with the convergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and wildfires across the western United States.”

It was already known that smoke contains tiny particulates; in wildfires these are called PM2.5. Incredibly small, they measure one-fiftieth of the width of a human hair. But unfortunately, this is small enough to bury deep into lung tissue.

This causes widespread inflammation of the cells which line our airways and lungs. In addition to irritation in the mouth, nose, and lung, the researchers say that prolonged exposure to PM2.5 can not only worsen asthma and heart disease, which is intuitive — but make people more susceptible to viruses as well.

Dealing With Particulate Matter Takes Up Immune System’s Energy

These tiny smoke particles can also trigger an immune response, Sarah Gibbens states in a story in the National Geographic. This occurs because the effort to battle PM2.5 takes top most of the energy reserves of the immune system; nowadays that means it can’t devote as much energy as it normally would toward fighting the strains of Covid-19 that are prevalent in our world today.

“The wildfires exacerbated the pandemic substantially,” study author Francesca Dominici told National Geographic, adding that inhaling the particulates in wildfire smoke is “compromising our ability to fight the virus.”

Unfortunately, the California wildfire season of 2021 was another hellish one, with the “Dixie” fire raging for weeks, ravaging huge parts of the Californian north.

Northern California firefighters battled what became the largest single wildfire in state history this month.

Historic Wildfire Years in California, Greece

Fueled by strong winds and the dry vegetation of the region, the fire burned much of the town of Greenville, California, destroying a total of 370 homes and structures and threatening nearly 14,000 buildings in the northern Sierra Nevada.

In their effort to investigate any links between smoke particulate matter and coronavirus cases, the team of researchers from Harvard University studied data from 92 counties in Washington, Oregon, and California between March and December of 2020.

Comparing satellite data and EPA air quality assessments of the time with health data regarding the coronavirus, they found that wildfire smoke was associated with an average increase of 11 percent in Covid-19 cases and eight percent more deaths associated with the virus.

Incredibly, the researchers found that as many as 20 percent of Covid-19 cases were linked to PM2.5 exposure in certain counties in Washington and California. Their analysis shows that the particulate matter from the wildfire season in 2020 contributed to a total of 19,742 Covid-19 cases and 748 deaths across all three states.

Of course, last year was a recording-setting wildfire season in the West, and this year is looking like it will be equally fearsome. During 2020, over four million acres were burned,  releasing more than 100 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air we breathe.

The state of Washington alone experienced more individual fires in 2020 than it had during any other year on record.

Since firefighting efforts have been further complicated by limited personnel and resources throughout the global pandemic, study author Dominici is especially concerned that the prevalence of highly contagious coronavirus variants during yet another historic wildfire season in the American west may lead to yet more cases and deaths in 2021.

“Clearly, we see that, overall, this is a very dangerous combination,” Dominici tells  interviewers from the Washington Post. “It’s a really scary thing as we continue to face these wildfires all around the world.”

As a way to combat the dangerous inhalation of wildfire smoke, especially while the virus continues to rage across the world, Dominici says people in areas where smoke is prevalent should wear a face mask. However, she adds that the single best way to protect everyone from the threat is to become fully inoculated against the virus.

More than 287,000 acres burned in Greece fires this Summer

The meteorological service of the National Observatory of Athens issued a statement last Friday in regard to the magnitude of the environmental catastrophe that wildfires have caused in Greece this year.

After analyzing data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), the NOA stated that a total of 1,161,650 stremmata, or 287,049 acres, of land have been burned since the beginning of the 2021 fire season in Greece.

This represents an astonishing 448% increase compared to the average annual burned acreage between 2002 and 2020 and of course this begs the question of how the Greece wildfire smoke impacted coronavirus infections in the country.

A total of 58 major forest fires have taken place in Greece in 2021. This represents an average of 4,942 acres being burned per large fire in Greece, putting the country at the top of all the Mediterranean nations for this year.

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