Researchers study impacts of wildfire smoke on lung function

67 participants split into three groups; people with asthma should refill inhalers before wildfire season

It is important for people to learn tips to prevent asthma exacerbation before wildfire season starts.


It is important for people to learn tips to prevent asthma exacerbation before wildfire season starts.

EMMA LEDBETTER, Evergreen news editor

WSU College of Nursing researchers conducted a study using an app to help asthma sufferers monitor their symptoms during wildfire season.

The study’s goal was to identify how and when air quality impacts lung function. Researchers are also investigating how daily asthma monitoring could provide information to patients with the chronic condition, said Julie Postma, study principal investigator and College of Nursing associate dean for research.

The study started last August, around the same time as wildfire season, and ran for eight weeks. Researchers are now in the process of analyzing data and preparing to publish their findings, she said.

Researchers split 67 participants into three groups for the study. Those in the control group regularly recorded their lung function using a handheld spirometer, Postma said. 

The first intervention group recorded lung function with a spirometer and used the Environmental Protection Agency’s SmokeSense app for information about air quality in certain areas. She said the second intervention group used a spirometer and a modified version of the app with options for sharing with other users.

When participants were surveyed after the study, most reported positive feelings about using SmokeSense or the modified app, Postma said. 

Research coordinator Ross Bindler said data between the three groups was not drastically different.

Between August and September, researchers noticed a drop in lung function — measured as the amount of air forced from the lungs in one second. They are waiting on the EPA to confirm if this trend is smoke-related, Bindler said.

The study extended outside of Washington to California, Utah, Kansas and Pennsylvania, Bindler said.

Based on the results, researchers will design future studies to measure lung function over multiple wildfire seasons. This will give them critical information on how wildfires impact breathing over extended periods of time, she said. 

Postma said it is important for people to learn tips to prevent asthma exacerbation before wildfire season starts, which the app can provide. 

People should try to stay indoors where the air is filtered to limit their exposure. If they have to go outside, they should plan for activities with low exertion, she said. 

“We’ve all gotten better at staying inside and not going crazy,” Postma said, “but at the same time, the mental health piece [of that] is really important.”

Asthmatics should make sure their rescue inhaler is full, so they do not have to go refill it when the air quality is poor, Bindler said.

“Take your controller med every day,” Postma said. “Don’t take it for granted — just take it.”

Washington’s wildfire season is predicted to start early this year due to drought and high temperatures, according to the National Interagency Fire Center

The Washington Smoke Blog and Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency share tips for dealing with smoke going into wildfire season.