Who Among the Elderly Is Most Vulnerable to Exposure to and Health Risks of Fine Particulate Matter From Wildfire Smoke?

Am J Epidemiol. 2017 Sep 15;186(6):730-735. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwx141.


Wildfires burn more than 7 million acres in the United States annually, according to the US Forest Service. Little is known about which subpopulations are more vulnerable to health risks from wildfire smoke, including those associated with fine particulate matter. We estimated exposure to fine particles specifically from wildfires, as well as the associations between the presence of wildfire-specific fine particles and the amount of hospital admissions for respiratory causes among subpopulations older than 65 years of age in the western United States (2004-2009). Compared with other populations, higher fractions of persons who were black, lived in urban counties, and lived in California were exposed to more than 1 smoke wave (high-pollution episodes from wildfire smoke). The risks of respiratory admissions on smoke-wave days compared with non-smoke-wave days increased 10.4% (95% confidence interval: 1.9, 19.6) for women and 21.7% (95% confidence interval: 0.4, 47.3) for blacks. Our findings suggest that increased risks of respiratory admissions from wildfire smoke was significantly higher for women than for men (10.4% vs. 3.7%), blacks than whites (21.7% vs. 6.9%), and, although associations were not statistically different, people in lower-education counties than higher-educated counties (12.7% vs. 6.1%). Our study raised important environmental justice issues that can inform public health programs and wildfire management. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires, evidence on vulnerable subpopulations can inform disaster preparedness and the understanding of climate change consequences.

Keywords: PM2.5; air pollution; health; respiratory outcomes; vulnerability; wildfire smoke.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Black or African American / statistics & numerical data
  • California / epidemiology
  • Climate Change
  • Disasters
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Fires*
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Particulate Matter / toxicity*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Smoke / adverse effects*
  • Smoke Inhalation Injury / epidemiology
  • Smoke Inhalation Injury / etiology*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Wilderness*


  • Particulate Matter
  • Smoke