Science Wednesday: Lessons from Wildfires and Air Pollution

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By Martha Sue Carraway

I grew up in the eastern part of North Carolina, near the coastal area and the Great Dismal Swamp. This is home to wide open spaces, long views, and clean air. During a visit Down East this past weekend, I was sitting indoors watching an icy rain fall. But just the day before, spring was everywhere, with new buds and green sprouts widely present. Spring does come a bit earlier down here than in my adopted home in the Triangle. It’s a good place to start my piece on the Green Hearts Campaign.

I began working at the EPA Human Studies Facility in 2007, and was happy to have a job that would allow me to use my background in medicine (I am a lung doctor) and science to study how air pollution harms people by affecting the cardiovascular system. Near the end of my first year, in June 2008, a very large wildfire broke out in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. This was the first of a number of significant fires in eastern North Carolina over the past years, and they seem to be increasing. Smoke from this low burning, smoldering fire cast a haze over the clean skies of eastern North Carolina.

PamlicoSoundsunriseImagine my excitement when scientists at the Clinical Research Branch came together with investigators across EPA to study the health impacts this fire was having on the residents who lived nearby. Because I was away for a few days for my parents 50th wedding anniversary during the planning, I narrowly missed the chance to have an air pollution monitor sited in my home town of Windsor! I enjoyed participating in this project and gathering data about the frequency of emergency department visits during the time of the fire. We found that in areas heavily affected by the wildfire smoke, people were more likely to go to hospital Emergency Departments to seek treatment for symptoms of heart failure and respiratory problems. We hope that some of the lessons learned from this fire will help keep people safer during future fire events. It is rewarding to know that the work we do at EPA impacts people near my home. I am happy that my parents and friends have learned about the air quality index that can help inform them when the air is not healthy anywhere in the USA.

About the author: Martha Sue Carraway is a Pulmonologist and works as a Medical Officer and Principal Investigator at the U.S .EPA Clinical Research Branch, Environmental and Public Health Division, in Chapel Hill, NC.

Find out more about our study of the Pocosin Refuge wildfire

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