Millions of people in parts of California and the Pacific Northwest are living through historic wildfires. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned in California, Oregon, and Washington, and many people lost their homes. For people in those areas, breathing has not been easy either. In fact, going outside and inhaling outdoor air still presents a health hazard because wildfire smoke poses a serious threat to respiratory health.
This is going to sound a little crazy, but ride this out with us: the coronavirus taught us something. Sit tight, we aren’t done yet. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, people started to pay more attention to the air they breathe. When people went outside in the beginning of the Creek Fire, Bobcat Fire, El Dorado Fire, or the Beachie Creek Fire, for instance, they reported difficulty breathing.
What’s In Wildfire Smoke?
Wildfires generate plumes of smoke that can travel many miles. The contents in wildfire smoke depend on the temperature of the fire (flaming or smoldering) and what’s burning (grass, trees, or brush). There are also particles and gases that fuel the fire, including carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter (linked to respiratory illnesses), nitrogen dioxide, polycyclic aromatic compounds, hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Particulate matter is often the most prevalent, and it poses a threat because it is 50 times smaller than a grain of sand (less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). This is why air quality warnings use PM2.5 as a metric.
The human body can’t defend against particles smaller than PM2.5. Have you been around a campfire and blown your nose after? Did you notice that your mucus was brown or blackish? That’s because particulate matter passed your body’s defenses and actually disturbed your air sacks, where oxygen crosses over into your blood. While there are immune cells in these air sacks that seek out foreign invaders and destroy them, they can’t break down particulate matter. This means that they constantly work to destroy them, resulting in more inflammation. Too much inflammation in the respiratory system is dangerous, especially for people with asthma or COPD.
Symptoms Of Breathing In Wildfire Smoke:
- Throat irritation
- Eye irritation
- Chest discomfort
- Shortness of breath
- Runny nose
COVID-19 shares a couple of those symptoms, so it can be confusing and scary with the current pandemic. The last thing you want to do during the pandemic is compromise the respiratory system or immune system. Whether or not there is a connection between smoke exposure and an increased risk of viral infection remains to be seen, but you should take extra measures to protect your respiratory health.
What Can You Do To Stay Healthy And Safe?
When wildfires are ablaze, the best thing you can do is stay indoors as much as possible. Don’t do strenuous activity outside, even if you have the itch to exercise. We know that people have been instructed to stay indoors since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is necessary with all the particulate matter in the air. General recommendations to stay safe are below:
- Roll up car windows: Don’t leave your windows down if you’re driving around in a smoky area. Additionally, keep your vents closed and operate your air conditioning on the recirculation setting.
- Don’t burn candles: It’s tempting to burn a candle in your home, especially if it has a beautiful aroma. Keep in mind that a burning candle is a source of indoor air pollution.
- Mask up: If you have to go outside, don’t rely on a simple bandana or thin facial covering to keep you safe. Particulate matter can pass through this breathable fabrics. N95 respirator masks or more expensive dust masks can help filter out damaging particles.
- Pay attention to air quality ratings: If wildfires are not far from where you live, monitor the air quality rating in your area daily. Cities with over 350,000 residents have to report levels daily, and the air quality is monitored by satellites and ground instruments.
- Take precautions for children: Children’s lungs are still developing and they actually breathe in more air than adults do. For this reason, they are more susceptible to pollution from smoke. Reign them in as best you can to keep them playing inside when it’s smoky outside.
- Protect the air in your home: Do what you can to keep your windows and doors closed as much as possible. If you have air conditioning, see if there is a recirculation setting to prevent your air conditioning from pulling air into the home. Most central air conditioning systems have HEPA filters for added protection. You can also place damp towels at the base of door frames or other places where air can sneak in the home.