More than 30 wildfires burning in the Tennessee Valley and southern Appalachian Mountains are sending billows of smoke drifting throughout the southeast. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s AirNow monitor reported “unhealthy” air from West Virginia extending all the way down to south Georgia.
Hospitals throughout Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina have received more people than usual needing assistance for breathing problems caused by the smoke. More than 200 people have been hospitalized in Chattanooga, Tenn., alone for shortness of breath and breathing problems since Nov. 11 due to the smoke.
“We’ve seen a big increase in the number of respiratory complaints coming in, specifically with people who have preexisting conditions like asthma,” said Hany Atallah, MD, chief of emergency medicine at Grady Health System in Atlanta.
The danger of smoke isn’t just the respiratory irritation. Wildfire smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide, with tiny particles 60 times smaller than the width of a human hair that can embed themselves deep within the lungs.
Dave Martin, deputy director of operations for Fire and Aviation Management at the U.S. Forest Service Southern Region, in Atlanta, is not expecting the situation to improve anytime soon. Rough Ridge is the largest fire so far, torching North Georgia’s Cohutta Wilderness. More than 23,000 acres have been burned, and the fire is only 30 percent contained.
“We’re preparing to be in this situation through Christmas,” said Martin.
Benzene, a key ingredient in gasoline, is a chemical widely used in a number of industries and products, particularly the oil and petroleum industry. Firefighters are at high risk of exposure, as well. Most people remain unaware of the toxic danger of benzene exposure, which can happen by inhalation or skin absorption. Benzene is a carcinogen that has been linked to Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), lymphomas and aplastic anemia