Wildfires are increasing dramatically in size and frequency around the world. (1,2) Extreme wildfires emit vast volumes of pollutants, including fine particulate matter (P[M.sub.2.5]), (3) which is associated with effects on cognitive functioning (4,5) and other significant health risks. (6) During periods of wildfires, air quality is further worsened by harmful gases and organics whose combined impact is not necessarily the same as ambient P[M.sub.2.5] in other scenarios. (7) New research in Environmental Health Perspectives examined both ambient and wildfire-related P[M.sub.2.5] in the United States in relation to cognitive functioning. (8)
In the new study, P[M.sub.2.5] was associated with reduced attention in adults within hours of exposure, an association that was especially pronounced among residents of western states, which are particularly burdened by wildfires. The findings suggest that "neurological impacts from air pollution are a special concern to communities in wildfire-impacted regions because of their recurring exposures to smoke," says first author Stephanie Cleland, a PhD candidate in environmental sciences and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Cleland is also an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education research fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
To assess how wildfire-related P[M.sub.2.5] might affect people's ability to focus, the investigators turned to a unique digital resource: the scores racked up by players of an online game called Lost in Migration, (9) which was designed to help people measure and improve their attention span. (10) Players are shown pictures of five birds oriented in various directions, then must determine if the middle bird is pointing left, right, up, or down. New flocks appear in rapid succession, and players are scored based on their speed and accuracy.
The investigators had access to scores from a cohort of 10,228 players aged 18 years and older in the contiguous United States. Among these were 1,809 players who lived in the western states of Oregon, Washington, California, Montana, Idaho, and Nevada. The researchers limited their analysis to the first 20...