Asthma cases linked to fires

Times Staff Writer

Emergency room visits for asthma at six San Diego-area hospitals nearly doubled during the October 2007 wildfires, according to a study released Thursday by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emergency-room visits for respiratory syndrome -- which includes pneumonia, sinusitis, laryngitis, shortness of breath and throat pain -- also rose.

The study, published in today’s CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, was based on data from the agency’s BioSense system. Emergency rooms across the country submit their chief complaints and diagnoses daily, then analysts look for signs of infectious disease outbreaks, bioterrorism attacks and other public health concerns. Six of 19 San Diego County hospitals participate in the system.

“This kind of additional data will allow us, and did allow us, to modify our health messages,” said Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health. “It’s not saying ‘You’ve got this level of smoke, here’s a theoretical problem.’ Now we can go one step further and say there’s a significant number of people being impacted” by wildfires.

The study compared daily visits during the five-day fire period with daily visits in a 20-day pre-fire period. For the six hospitals combined, visits for asthma rose to 40.4 visits per day from 21.7 visits.

The 2007 wildfires destroyed 1,700 homes and forced the evacuation of more than 300,000 people in San Diego County. Even so, the report concluded that “substantial numbers of adverse health effects likely were avoided by timely evacuation orders . . . school closures, health communications and other measures implemented by local authorities.” The hospitals did not, for example, report an increase in burns or in heart problems associated with smoke inhalation.


Tiny particulates from wildfire smoke can be inhaled deep into the lungs and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing even in healthy people. Children, the elderly and anyone with cardiac or respiratory disorders such as asthma are particularly vulnerable.

County health departments issue air quality reports that, under the most adverse fire conditions, advise residents to stay indoors with the doors and windows shut unless it’s too hot outside. Those who have air conditioners should run them with the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.