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Wildfire smoke could boost lung cancer risk

Persistent exposure to wildfire smoke may be putting Rogue Valley residents at higher risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases — especially firefighters who are on the front lines battling blazes, according to Dr. Siva Marri.

“The main long-term impact is when you’re exposed to smoke for a longer duration, that can put you at risk for having lung cancers and chronic lung problems,” said the local pulmonologist.

However, Marri said smoking is still a much bigger risk factor for lung cancer.

For the second summer in a row, the Rogue Valley was under a layer of smoke after a July 15 lightning storm sparked more than 145 fires in Southern Oregon.

Providence Medford Medical Center saw more patients visiting its emergency department, urgent care clinic and pulmonary clinic, Marri said.

People suffering the short-term impacts of smoke exposure experienced bronchitis and flare-ups of conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he said.

Kids who experience flare-ups may suffer damage to their developing lungs, he said.

Smoke exposure can also trigger heart attacks in susceptible patients, Marri said.

“The long-term impacts are limited when it comes to wildfires,” he said. “But if it happens quite often and you have constant exposure to smoke then, yes, there is a risk that people can have increased incidents of lung cancer.”

Marri said firefighters may face the most risk.

He noted some first-responders who breathed in smoke and fine particulate dust at the site of the World Trade Center terrorist attack Sept. 11, 2001, suffer from chronic lung issues.

Marri said firefighters should wear protective gear to safeguard their lungs.

Although working on a wildfire during the summer offers good pay and helps the community, the risks of the job may not be worth it for some, he cautioned.

“If you have asthma or any other chronic lung issue, I would advise them not to participate,” Marri said.

For the public, the best defense against wildfire smoke is to limit exposure through steps such as staying indoors when possible, wearing a mask when outdoors and driving with vehicle windows up and the air system on recirculate, he said.

Local residents, including those worried about exposure to smoke from wildfires or cigarettes, are invited to the Know Your Lungs event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 14, at the Lucille Tremblay Conference Center, 840 Royal Ave., on the Providence hospital campus in Medford.

At the free event, Providence pulmonology and thoracic surgery doctors will listen to people’s lungs and provide information about lung cancer screening. Coffee and refreshments will be available.

Participants can either drop in or register at www.providence.org/classes or calling 503-574-6595. The website also has information about classes, counseling, prescription medication, nicotine replacement products and other resources to quit smoking.

Marri said most people are aware of the importance of colon- and breast-cancer screening, but they may not have heard about lung-cancer screening.

In general, an annual low-dose computed tomography scan of the lungs is recommended for people ages 55 to 77 who have a history of smoking the equivalent of at least a pack of cigarettes per year for 30 years, are current smokers or who quit within the past 15 years, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Guidelines.

U.S. Preventative Task Force guidelines call for screening of people in those categories up to age 80.

“We’re trying to educate people about the importance of screening and early detection of lung cancer because lung cancer has the highest mortality among all cancers,” Marri said. “So if detected early, we can make a meaningful impact. The majority of the lung cancers, by the time they’re diagnosed, they’re already in advanced stages.”

But if lung cancer is diagnosed and treated early, the chances of being alive five years after the diagnosis is 80 percent, he said.

Another benefit of a lung scan is the test can catch other abnormalities in the chest, such as an aneurysm — or bulge — in the aorta, he said.

Marri said smoking remains the number one cause of lung cancer because smokers are exposed to harmful substances every day, and usually for a long period of time. The longer someone has smoked, the higher their risk.

Warning signs of lung cancer include any change in a smoker’s chronic cough, a change in the voice, coughing up blood, persistent chest pain and unintentional weight loss, he said.

People who quit smoking experience a range of benefits, including improved breathing and a reduced risk of lung cancer compared to those who continue smoking, he noted.

One year after quitting smoking, a person’s risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a smoker. After 10 years, the risk of dying from lung cancer is half that of a smoker, according to Providence.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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