MAY 30, 2022 3:11 PM PDT

Decades Later, Wildfires Increase Risk of Cancer

WRITTEN BY: Zoe Michaud

Wildfires are becoming more numerous and severe as a result of climate change. As atmospheric patterns related to temperature and precipitation change, wildfire seasons become longer and the geographic areas impacted increase. Though wildfires are known to negatively impact respiratory and cardiovascular health, scientists are still working to understand the scope of wildfires’ impact on human health. 

Researchers at McGill University studied a cohort of 2 million people over the course of 20 years to understand whether exposure to wildfires correlates to an increased likelihood of developing cancer. In their recently published paper, the researchers concluded that exposure to wildfires was associated with a slightly increased incidence of both lung cancer and brain tumors. 

In the group that the researchers studied, a person living within 50 kilometers of an area that had experienced a wildfire in the past 10 years was 4.9% more likely to develop lung cancer and 10% more likely to develop a brain tumor than a person in an unexposed area. 

Wildfire smoke contains pollutants that are harmful when inhaled during a wildfire event. But even after a wildfire, pollutants including hydrocarbons and heavy metals can linger in the soil, water sources, and indoor environments. 

Scott Weichenthal, an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at McGill University, noted that "exposure to harmful environmental pollutants might continue beyond the period of active burning through several routes of exposure." These lingering environmental pollutants are thought to contribute to the long-term effect of wildfires in increasing the incidence of developing certain types of cancer. epidemiological

The researchers noted that epidemiological trends related to wildfires are complex and more research is necessary to understand the impact of these events. While there is currently little that can be done to counteract the pollutants released during a wildfire, fire prevention programs have shown moderate success in preventing wildfires from occurring in the first place. 

Sources: Environmental Health Perspectives, The Lancet Planetary Health, International Journal of Wildland Fire

About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Zoe (she/her) is a science writer and a scientist working in genomics. She received her B.S. from the University of Connecticut with a focus in Evolutionary Biology. At Labroots, she focuses on writing scientific content related to clinical research and diagnostics.
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