‘Even after flames are out, public health risk remains’

Public health researcher says winds carry gases and particulates over a large area, which can cause lung problems and heart attacks.

December 6, 2010 04:06
3 minute read.
Zaka members locating remains after Carmel fires

311_zaka in fire aftermath. (photo credit: Aharon Baruch Leibovitch)

There are two risk periods for wildfires, Dr. Eric Amster, a public health researcher from the University of Haifa and Harvard, told The Jerusalem Post Sunday, as government officials became cautiously optimistic that the fires would be contained shortly.

“The first phase is damage from the actual flames, such as burns and smoke inhalation,” Amster explained. “The second phase is still in effect until around 48 hours afterward, depending on the winds. The winds carry gases and particulates over a large area, which can cause lung problems and heart attacks.”

These particulates, if inhaled in large enough quantities, can exacerbate asthma, cause lung problems and bring on heart attacks or congestive heart failure, he warned.

“I don't want to alarm anyone unnecessarily,” he said. “If you can see the flames or smell the flames, then you should stay indoors with your windows closed. No one should be exercising outside, particularly not children and the elderly.”

If you feel shortness of breath or chest pain, then you should head to an emergency room to get checked out, according to Amster, who has been working with the governmental public health system since Friday to determine what the consequences of the fires might be.

He added, however, that a runny nose, headache or cough is not generally a sign to go to the ER.

“There are two types of elements being brought from the fire: soot and particulates,” the Fulbright Scholar said. “Our bodies are good at fighting off soot by coughing it out, but particulates get through and pose a potential risk, especially in exacerbating existing conditions.”

Somewhat ironically, because of the high air pollution in Haifa due to its factories, the city has a great number of air monitors, Amster said. There are 13 stations in Haifa itself and more in Tivon, Tirat Carmel and Yokne’am.

“So far it’s just matter from incomplete combustion of trees [rather than hazardous chemicals],” he said. He added that he had been contacted within a day by the authorities for his expertise, and that his recommendations were quickly implemented.

Once the fires are contained, Amster is also interested in researching the environmental precursors that may have contributed to the blaze.

“Here at Haifa University, we study the effects of climate change. The drought seems to have played a factor, but a fire always needs a spark. If burning trash is that spark, then I'd like to see a regulatory system in place that would prohibit it and fine people,” he said.

In a related matter, the fire retardants that have been poured on the Carmel area by firefighting aircraft can pose a health danger if residents and visitors are not careful, the Health Ministry warned on Sunday.

Comprised of aluminum phosphates, the chemicals are liable to irritate the respiratory system as well as the eyes. The ministry advised teams in the field and any others in contact with the chemical on the ground to wear protective masks.

In the event of symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath and chest pains, the sufferer should bathe his whole body. People who live in areas where the chemicals were used should remain indoors, the ministry said.

Children should keep their hands clean and not be allowed to play on affected surfaces or with objects that were sprayed with the chemicals.

Fortunately, the chemicals have such effects only for short periods.

Dr. Daniel Ben-Dov, chief of the emergency medicine unit at Haifa’s Carmel Medical Center, added that a number of firefighters and rescue staffers had come to the hospital with complaints regarding their eyes and the mucous membranes in their throats, which resulted from exposure to the chemicals. They were treated and discharged.

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