This week, some around Paradise said that when they inhaled, they could feel the particles cutting their throats. Others likened breathing to a persistent low-level anxiety attack.
“Let me put it this way,” said Becky Dearing, 66, who already has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, “you almost feel like you’re choking.”
“We’re like zombies,” she went on, “walking around, all the unknowns.”
The precise biological mechanics of how people develop chronic lung problems, while not fully flushed out, lie at the intersection of two seemingly disparate scientific areas, immunology and environmental study.
Immune cells that respond to foreign particles douse the particles with toxins, among other tactics, to destroy them. But an intense event like extremely poor air quality can prompt such a strong immune response that it can throw the body’s delicate network out of balance, particularly in people predisposed to asthma or allergy.
A vicious cycle can begin where each time a person experiences even small, related stress — like smoke — the body overreacts, leading to constricted air flow and intensifying the risk of heart attack and stroke for some people.
Researchers say that climate change leads to this kind of ill health through wildfire, but also through prolonged pollen seasons, dust storms and other events that affect air quality.
“We’re setting up a tipping point in the immune system that leads to more inflammation and disease,” said Dr. Sharon Chinthrajah, a pulmonologist and allergist at Stanford, speaking of the way climate change has put increased pressure on human defenses.
“California,” she added, “is being reset to a new reality.”