Grant explores little-understood effects of wildfire smoke

June 16, 2022

Emily Grant

Emily Grant

A new study from recent MPH@UNC graduate Emilly Grant, MPH ’21, assesses what scientists currently know about the long-term health effects of wildfire exposure – and what they don’t. Her findings underscore an urgent need for greater scrutiny of long-term health impacts in the face of growing risk from devastating wildfires that are increasing in frequency.

As a lifelong resident of the Pacific Northwest, Grant is all too aware of the threat posed by wildfires and has witnessed firsthand how climate change is altering the risk landscape. She and other residents of the region have seen the frequency of catastrophic forest fires that required evacuation increase from “a few times a decade to almost yearly,” according to Grant. This trend is mirrored nationwide, and the effects are stark; estimates place annual economic losses related to wildfires across the U.S. as high as $70 billion.

Grant, who is currently in medical school, is passionate about health and has long been concerned with climate change. Based on her experience with the forest fires in her home state of Washington, she knew that there was plenty of work to be done to understand and respond to their health effects, both on the population and individual level.

“I wanted to find a topic that can’t really be politicized, and with wildfires, everyone deals with this,” she said. “We have to stay inside for at least a week every year.”

This combination of interests and concerns led to a research topic for Grant’s master’s thesis, which she completed through the Gillings School’s online MPH@UNC program, and her findings were published in the May issue of the Journal of Climate Change and Health.

“I started looking into long-term health effects, and I found quite a bit more than I expected,” said Grant. “Effects from wildfire smoke aren’t confined to lungs and airways, but there are potential risks for bladder cancer, heart disease and a host of other illnesses.”

Not much is known about the magnitude of this risk, but what we do know is concerning. For example, there is a pronounced link between cancer and industrial exposure to chemicals, such as benzene in industrial rubber production, and those same chemicals are present in smoke from wildfires.

To assess the current state of evidence, Grant looked for previous studies of the long-term health effects of wildfires, finding just 17 that met her criteria. She analyzed them based on the following themes: premature mortality; increased morbidity from respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental health and other health outcomes; and health-related economic outcomes or health care costs. The result of this analysis pointed to limited evidence of mixed or poor quality and a need for longitudinal and other studies to expand the evidence base.

A particularly prominent area of concern is mental health, with clearly documented effects on people who have evacuated their homes and offices in the face of a wildfire, and Grant notes that all of these effects are likely magnified among such vulnerable populations as the unhoused and people living with chronic health conditions.

Grant hopes to continue this research as she pursues medical training, and she already has plans for future research in which she’ll look for clues by comparing health records to historical data about wildfire exposure.

She credits the flexibility afforded by an online degree program with allowing her to conduct this research while attending to family concerns and earning a master’s degree.

“I was able to finish my degree and contribute to research that I am passionate about, and which will help me better care for my future patients, while still spending precious time with my family,” said Grant. “I’m incredibly thankful for the flexibility of the MPH@UNC program and the support I received along the way.”


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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