Wildfire smoke exposure is in the news this week due to increasing concerns over increased heart attack risks. Australian researchers have linked the fine particulate matter pollution from wildfire smoke to an increased risk of sudden heart attacks, or other acute cardiac problems.

Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers analyzed data from the 2006-2007 wildfires in Victoria, Australia. What the team found was nearly a seven percent increase in heart attacks when the surrounding air was filled with smoke from the fires.

The majority of the increased risk was in elderly patients (ages 65 and older), and the researchers studied data from hospital admissions, emergency room visits and out-of-hospital heart attacks.

Incident rates spiked after two days of wildfire smoke exposure at PM2.5 concentrations. Men had the highest risk factor for out-of-hospital heart attacks while women were at greater risk for ischemic heart disease hospital admissions.

Anjali Haikerwal, of Monash University in Melbourne, led the team of the researchers.

“The results from our study suggest that PM2.5 exposure from wildfire smoke may be an important determinant of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest and IHD (ED visits and hospital admissions) and that susceptible persons such as older adults may be at higher risk during such extreme events.”

Wildfire smoke is the most prominent source of PM2.5 air pollution, and the authors of the study reported “smoke from wildfires disperses widely and affects large portions of the population away from the fire source.”

heart attack risks and wildfires

The study urges that people pay close attention to wildfire warnings in the area. Also, if you are elderly or at high risk for respiratory distress or heart attacks, find areas that are away from the smoke generated by wildfires.

Most municipalities will post air quality warnings to urge people to stay indoors. The PM2.5 level is especially worrisome because it is can penetrate into a person’s lungs and result in stresses that lead to sudden heart attacks.

The level also exceeds air quality guidelines established by regulatory bodies such as the World Health Organization.

What is PM

PM refers to particulate matter air pollution. At 10 micrometers in diameter, the pollution poses a health concern due to its ability to accumulate in the respiratory system. PM2.5 is fine particulate matter air pollution can lodge itself deep into a person’s lungs.

The researchers concluded the paper with a warning over the increased incidences of wildfires and the growing number of people at risk of smoke exposure. Their research should serve as a guidepost for communities and policymakers developing response plans to wildfires and the corresponding health impacts. Especially as it relates to cardiovascular disease and sudden cardiac events.

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