Hidden epidemics: Disasters are driving a mental health crisis

Disasters, including wildfires, hurricanes and flooding, are intensifying as climate change accelerates. Already, the U.S. has faced nearly 40 such events costing at least a billion dollars each in the past decade, more than during any previously recorded period.
Studies show symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress following disasters. And mental health experts worry the psychological costs from these increasingly common cataclysms — with a pandemic now overlaid on top — could be unprecedented.

As wildfire smoke permeates even indoors, is government doing enough to respond?

Editor’s note: Wildfires are growing in frequency and intensity, threatening our landscape, our lifestyle and our health. “Smoky Skies, Altered Lives” probes how the upsurge in fire and smoke fueled by climate change puts us at risk, and how restoring the health of our forests could make a difference. Dan Jaffe did everything he had been told to do. He shut his windows. He stayed indoors.

Photographs of Smoky Seattle: 2020

Editor’s note: Wildfires are growing in frequency and intensity, threatening our landscape, our lifestyle and our health. “Smoky Skies, Altered Lives” probes how the upsurge in fire and smoke fueled by climate change puts us at risk, and how restoring the health of our forests could make a difference.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke

Pay attention to the air quality in your area and know what different Air Quality Index values mean. You can use the gov website to check air quality where you live. Purple Air is another resource with more localized but less authoritative information. While everyone may react to wildfire smoke, children and those over 65 are most vulnerable, as are those with heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. If you have an underlying respiratory condition like asthma or COPD, make sure your medications are up to date and filled.

Racial and economic divides extend to wildfire smoke, too

While mounting evidence suggests that wildfire smoke is bad for all humans, not everyone is equally at risk. It’s not just the young, the old and those with respiratory impairments who stand out — where you live, the work you do, how much money you make, whether you have long-term and flexible employment, and the health care you have matter a lot, too. Thanks to centuries of housing, education and economic discrimination, African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be poor, more likely to live in substandard housing that can easily let smoke in,  more likely to be homeless, more likely to rely on jobs that require them to work outside, less likely to have paid time off, and less likely to have health insurance. (For example, 70% of farmworkers, who are over 90% Latino in California, go without health insurance in the heart of the state’s wine country.)

Those vulnerabilities are on top of “decades of environmental justice research that minority populations are at higher risk of exposure to higher environmental hazards, not just smoke,” says Anjum Hajat, a University of Washington epidemiologist who studies social and environmental disparities. People of color are more likely to live near polluted areas and to be exposed to pollution, even though whites are more likely to be responsible for creating it.

Can U.S. health authorities learn from BC’s experience with wildfire smoke?

British Columbia health specialists are ahead of their counterparts in the U.S. when it comes to anticipating sicknesses resulting from wildfire smoke. Their studies show how inhaler prescriptions and doctor visits increase, and they have set up an early-warning system using those metrics. Still, even in western Canada, a more proactive approach is needed to protect vulnerable populations, physicians say.