As wildfires threaten Europe, WHO underscores health risks


As parts of the WHO European Region experience exceptionally warm and dry summer weather, several wildfires are also burning. The wildfires in the Attica region of Greece have already cost lives, and Sweden has also been battling forest fires. Together with the current high summer temperatures, these fires are posing an additional health risk to people in the area.

Close to the fires, smoke is a health risk because it contains a mixture of hazardous gases and small particles that can irritate the eyes and respiratory system. The effects of smoke exposure and inhalation range from eye and respiratory tract irritation to more serious disorders, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbated asthma and premature death. Exposure to particulate matter is the main public health threat from short-term exposure to wildfire smoke.

Combined exposure to heat and air pollution

High temperatures combined with air pollution can increase the health impact. Current evidence shows that the effects of heatwaves on mortality are greater on days with high levels of fine particulate matter.

Older people, people with cardiorespiratory diseases or chronic illnesses, children, and people who work outdoors are particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of heatwaves and air pollution.

Protect yourself and others

It is possible to protect yourself from the adverse health effects of hot weather and smoke exposure. In addition to the public health advice for heatwaves – to keep your home cool, keep out of the heat, and keep your body cool and hydrated – consider the following additional measures if close to wildfires or during periods of heavy air pollution.

  • Remain indoors and avoid direct ventilation with outside air.
  • Reduce unnecessary travel and, if driving a motor vehicle, use the headlights during the day to improve conspicuousness and visibility.
  • Reduce other sources of indoor air pollution, such as smoking cigarettes, using propane gas or wood-burning stoves, spraying aerosol products, and frying or grilling food.

If particularly at risk, you may want to stay in air-conditioned spaces, which generally have fewer outdoor particles than buildings that use open windows for ventilation.

When moving or working outside, you may wish to wear a mask, particularly when exposed to higher concentrations of particulate matter. Wearing a mask might reduce short-term exposure, provided the mask is appropriate, is able to efficiently filter very small particles (PM2.5), and is well fitted to provide a tight seal around the mouth and nose.

If anyone you know is at risk, help them to get advice and support. If a family member or someone you are assisting presents with hot, dry skin and delirium, convulsions, unconsciousness, or seriously aggravated cardiorespiratory symptoms, call the doctor or an ambulance immediately.

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