Orji: Wildfire smoke could affect student health

Joslyn Orji

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

This semester, students have had a lot on their plate. With increased social distancing measures, multiple resident hall quarantines, asynchronous learning and the underlying fear of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus, this semester couldn’t get any more anxiety-inducing. Right?


Wrong. Colorado’s poor air quality is a blow after the long months of quarantining and social distancing, and one that doesn’t help with any apprehension we’ve had since hearing the news about the Cameron Peak fire toward the end of the summer. Choked by wildfire smoke and ash falling from the sky and the likelihood of people’s health deteriorating is cause for concern.

According to The Colorado Sun, people with respiratory diseases or cardiovascular issues are especially at risk as the fires get closer.

Climbing into the red zone of the Air Quality Index, a measurement used by the Environmental Protection Agency to measure the quality of the air, even healthy people should limit the time that they spend outside.

The image below is the Air Quality Index. The scale goes from a standard healthy green to a hazardous maroon. At this point, Fort Collins has spent a week in the orange zone in 2020

“Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn,” according to the EPA. The smoke contains toxic materials, such as carbon monoxide and minuscule matter. Despite the fact that we wear a mask everywhere we go, smoke particles are so fine and small that a cloth mask, which many of us wear, isn’t going to stop them from going deep into our respiratory systems and settling there. 

Some of us may have to work outdoors or still have to leave the house for classes or essentials, but it’s a good idea to avoid breathing it in if you can. The EPA found that those of low socio-economic status, are pregnant or have respiratory diseases face increased health risks from wildfire smoke.

While everyone’s reaction to the wildfire smoke differs, the close proximity of Fort Collins to the wildfires makes it all the scarier.

It makes me wonder: How are the effects of wildfire pollution going to impact students’ health in the long run? We could all have different reactions to it, depending on personal health and the time that we choose to spend outdoors. Yet, between the impacts of COVID-19, wildfire pollution and our overall health, it’s something that needs to be addressed by the next gubernatorial administration.


Health impacts from wildfire smoke exposure vary based on a number of factors. A person’s preexisting health conditions, exposure to particulate matter in the air, the weather pattern within the area and length of exposure are crucial factors to keep in mind.

As ash and larger particles in the air are captured in our eyes and noses, this can create burning nostrils, itchy eyes and scratchy throats. It will not only affect our lungs but also the entire cardiovascular system, as the particles can damage the lungs and other parts of the body if we are exposed to it for elongated periods of time.

Asking people to stay inside is a tough request, especially after most of us have spent the bulk of the day sitting through online lectures and Zoom calls. 

According to experts, there is some overlap between symptoms of COVID-19 and smoke inhalation. Gov. Jared Polis addressed this concern recently, stating that if there’s any confusion about whether one has COVID-19 or may have just inhaled a lot of smoke, a test is the way to go.

For students and faculty, CSU has made COVID-19 tests available this semester. The tests are done in an orderly and organized manner, and results are typically available within a few days.

However, it is recommended that people should limit their exposure to the outdoors as much as possible, especially for exercise reasons, though that might be a bit more difficult than expected.

With the long summer spent mostly indoors, a lot of people have found solace in outdoor activities. Personally, I have become accustomed to bike rides every evening and gardening every morning. Unfortunately, experts say that even healthy people should stay indoors until the smoke clears as the lungs of a person running, cycling or doing any cardio workout are working overtime to attain more oxygen.

In addition to physical health effects, how might this impact student mental health? As I mentioned before, gardening, biking or even just sitting outside my apartment reading or doing homework are some of the ways I decompress after sitting at a computer screen all day. Asking people to stay inside is a tough request, especially after most of us have spent the bulk of the day sitting through online lectures and Zoom calls. 

We all get cranky after sitting in one spot for too long or even when we are anxious or bored. I believe the best thing that we can do is go on a media diet. Consume what makes you feel relaxed and happy, and set aside time for these activities so that you can devote your full attention to them.

Joslyn Orji can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @lazy_svndae_.