As smoke spreads, respiratory problems rise

• By Andy Miller, Georgia Health News •

More areas of Georgia are reporting increases in respi­ratory illnesses as the smoke from wildfires spreads over a wide swath of the state.

Forest Fire Health Issues

Forest Fire Health Issues

State health officials re­ported Wednesday that the areas of Rome and LaGrange had joined metro Atlanta, Dalton, Gainesville and Jas­per as seeing a rise in hospi­tal emergency room visits for asthma.

Patients 65 and older and young children are the groups most frequently af­fected, the state Department of Public Health said. These groups, along with people with existing respiratory conditions, are especially susceptible to health effects from the smoke.

Public Health said it could not determine what percent­age of the ER visits were at­tributable to smoke from the ongoing wildfires in North Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Fire officials say the larg­est wildfire in the South has now burned more than 23,000 acres in the North Georgia mountains—an area larger than the New York City borough of Manhattan, reported CBS Atlanta af­filiate WGCL-TV. The blaze was 30 percent contained Wednesday morning, the sta­tion said. A smaller fire in Rabun County has burned more than 6,000 acres and was still spreading Wednes­day.

This year’s drought helped create the conditions for wildfires, and the continuing lack of rainfall has contrib­uted to their spread.

AirNow—an EPA website that displays the Air Quality Index—showed unhealthy air from Georgia’s northern border through Macon and farther south.

In Middle Georgia, Dr. Shalabh “Mickey” Bansal, medical director of the Pe­diatric Emergency Room at Coliseum Northside Hospi­tal in Macon, told the Macon Telegraph that he has been seeing more children with respiratory illnesses.

“Not only known asthmat­ics but kids that have been previously healthy…are com­ing in with very serious re­spiratory concerns, includ­ing wheezing, breathing very fast and low oxygen levels,” Bansal said.

St. Mary’s Hospital in Athens said it is seeing an increase in outpatient visits from people with respiratory conditions.

Mark Ralston, public rela­tions manager at St. Mary’s, said patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pul­monary disease are coming in more frequently for out­patient care, the Athens Ban­ner-Herald reported.

Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s biggest safety-net hospital, said Wednesday that its ER is seeing a slight increase of patients com­plaining of respiratory is­sues. The hospital linked at least some of those ER visits to wildfire smoke.

Public Health, using its surveillance system, report­ed Wednesday that in the Dalton health district, the percentage of ER visits with asthma complaints has been climbing steadily, from be­low 4 percent in early Octo­ber to 4 percent to 7 percent during the last 10 days.

The percentage of asthma-related emergency room vis­its in Gainesville has been climbing since Oct. 23, reaching 8 percent on Mon­day.

In Atlanta, asthma ER vis­its have consistently reached above 8 percent over the last 11 days, with the biggest in­crease among children. The Lawrenceville district’s por­tion of asthma ER trips has been above 7 percent in 6 of the last 9 days, including 3 days when it was higher than 8 percent.

LaGrange and Decatur districts also report an up­tick in ER visits for asthma problems. Rome district ER visits for asthma appear to be increasing this month, but not as significantly as in other areas.

Piedmont Healthcare told GHN on Monday that its hospital in Jasper, Piedmont Mountainside, said the aver­age number of patients seen in its emergency department with respiratory issues (per day) increased by 8 percent from September to October. But then those visits jumped by more than 50 percent in the first 14 days of Novem­ber, Piedmont officials said.