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Long-term effects caused by wildfire smoke still unknown
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Long-term effects caused by wildfire smoke still unknown

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Detroit and Santiam Canyon Fire

Fire crews work in the area of Niagara Heights Road east of Gates on Sept. 11. While the air quality has improved over the past few days, many people could still feel the effects of the recent fires in the region.

Folks in the mid-valley are rejoicing now that the air quality has returned to, for the most part, a healthy level. 

Following a nearly two-week stretch during which air pollution was at a record high throughout most of the state of Oregon, mid-valley communities west of Interstate 5 are now experiencing air quality that is safe following a cluster of rain storms last week. 

For areas that are still feeling the effects of the statewide wildfires, such as Detroit and Lyons, the air quality might still be hazardous for unhealthy groups. But it is markedly better than it was at this time last week. 

While it is safe to breathe the outside air now, many folks still have questions about the potential long-term health effects caused by inhaling polluted air.  How harmful were those clusters of days during which the AQI constantly exceeded 300 and broke 500 in some parts of the state?

Long story short, experts aren’t entirely certain.

According to Perry Hystad, an environmental epidemiologist and associate professor at Oregon State, there has been loads of research to show that exposure to air pollution over years, or even decades, can lead to the development of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. 

There are also studies that show once wildfire smoke comes into a community, emergency dispatches and hospital use goes up within the hour. For people who have pre-existing diseases, wildfires are likely to trigger health events. 

But what lies between those two specific time frames and conditions is still unknown.

“Unfortunately what everyone is asking is, ‘Do these relatively short periods of exposure — for us, around 10 days of very high exposure — will that increase risk of developing future diseases?’ That’s where we really don’t know what the answer is,” Hystad said.

An analysis by the EO Media Group last week found that Oregon had the worst air in the nation, and likely the world, at the height of the wildfires. The same study found that 20 of the 36 Environmental Protection Agency-monitored sites in Oregon two weeks ago featured air that was rated as “hazardous.”

The massive amount of property damage caused by the wildfires contributed greatly to that. 

“If you’re burning plastics and building materials and tires, that air pollution is much more toxic than what is just coming from biomass,” Hystad said. “For sure we know that there are these differences. Again, what that would translate to for risk of developing disease, I don’t think is really known yet.”

Hystad believes the unprecedented wildfires in Oregon could influence the research that goes into long-term health effects caused by wildfire air pollution. 

The severity of the fires could also prompt an increase in research on the best ways to manage forests to reduce wildfires exposure. 

“I think a lot of people in the research community and policy makers viewed wildfire smoke exposure as a disaster event that happened one time a year and wouldn’t happen again,” Hystad said. “We’re very clearly seeing that pattern change. Where wildfires are becoming more common, the fire season is longer, fires are more intense. 

“Air pollution emissions from wildfires are actually contributing to long-term exposure now. So I could see there being a lot of research now trying to specifically address, ‘What are the risks form wildfire smoke exposure, and what are the best ways to manage forests to reduce wildfires exposure?’”

While it is now safe to breathe the outside air, many folks are now tasked with cleaning up the layer of ash that covered the valley while the wildfires raged. Much of the ash was washed away by rain over the weekend, but some still remains. 

The City of Corvallis released a guide on how to clean up and dispose of ash using information provided by the Air Pollution Control District in Santa Barbara County, California.

That information can be found at the APCD website. Among other things, the guide advises those cleaning up ash to NOT use a leaf blower, as it can re-suspend harmful fine particles into the air. Instead, only use household or shop vacuums that have a HEPA filter. 

When cleaning up ash without a vacuum, sweep it gently with a push broom into a plastic bag and dispose of it in regular trash. After sweeping ash, mop the area with a damp cloth or gently hose it with water. 

Divert the water away from storm drains, though, as ash has a high pH and can be harmful for the environment.

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