Wildfires have become more common and, along with the terrible destruction they create, the smoke is a cause for concern due to increased levels of pollution and negative impave on your overall health. California, the western and now parts of the southern United States are experiencing an increasing number of smoky days each year and the effects of wildfires have reached as far as the east coast. Wildfire smoke is a public health hazard because it can impact both outdoor and indoor air quality.
Your Air Quality
Some people may barely notice the smoke, but others may find themselves struggling to breathe. How much you’re affected by the smoke depends on a lot of factors, that include age, pre-existing health conditions, and the density of the smoke in your area. Below, you’ll find information on the proper respirator masks to seek out, resources to check on air quality (both nationally and locally), and additional tips on reducing exposure to wildfire smoke.
What Is The Smoke Made Of?
Wildfire smoke is a complex mix of carbon dioxide, water vapor, gaseous chemicals, and particulate matter — a mix of solid particles and liquid droplets suspended in the air. The exact composition of wildfire smoke can vary depending on what materials are fueling the fire, how hot it’s burning, and the weather conditions.
For people in close proximity to a wildfire, there’s a danger of breathing gaseous chemicals the fire emits. These include carbon monoxide, methane, acetic acid, and formaldehyde.
But the bigger risk, or the one that affects people far outside the immediate area of the fire, is known as particulate matter. The larger particles in smoke can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat but generally don’t reach the lungs. It’s the smaller, “fine” particles, which can be a fraction of the diameter of a human hair, that can reach the lungs and negatively impact respiratory and overall health. These particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs and eventually make it into the bloodstream, making healthy people sick and sick people sicker.
It can be very difficult to predict which way wildfire smoke will blow and how it will affect air quality. Smoke concentrations change constantly depending on weather, terrain, and many other variables.
A Harm To Your Health
Poor air quality from wildfire smoke can affect people in a variety of ways. Mild symptoms of wildfire smoke could include:
Shortness of breath
These symptoms are mostly caused by particulate matter irritating the mucous membranes and respiratory tract. The toxic gases in smoke, particularly formaldehyde and gas called acrolein, also irritates the respiratory system and can make these symptoms worse. Exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can cause health-related issues such as chest pain and irregular heartbeat in people with heart disease.
Tracking What's In The Air You Breathe
It's difficult to know when and where a wildfire may start. Even those not in close proximity to the wildfire itself can still be impacted by the smoke emitted. If there are wildfires in your area and you can smell smoke or the air looks hazy or smoggy, the air quality is probably poor. The EPA website AirNow provides real-time updates on air quality for the U.S. and parts of Canada. AirNow also has regularly updated maps showing where wildfires are currently burning and which areas may be affected by smoke plumes.
When to Limit Activity
Once a wildfire lasts a certain duration, the air quality level often reaches unhealthy levels. This means that at minimum, sensitive groups like the elderly, children, people with heart or lung disease, and those with other respiratory health issues should limit time spent outdoors. Some areas have experienced red and purple AQI levels, which means the air quality is unhealthy for everyone. At these levels, most people will have some symptoms from the smoky air and should take steps to limit their exposure.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Smoke
The two easiest things you can do to protect yourself when air quality is bad are to stay indoors and limit your physical activity. While this won’t provide complete protection, it will reduce your risk. However, as the air quality outdoor decrease, your indoor air quality could be impacted as well.
Other steps to take:
Keep windows and doors closed tightly, and run an air conditioner if you have one. Make sure the filter is clean and the unit is set to re-circulate indoor air.
Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution. This means no smoking, burning candles, cooking on a gas stove, or vacuuming (which agitates allergens and pollutants and circulates through the air you breathe).
Air Purifiers: What to Know
Air purifiers can be helpful, but they vary in their effectiveness against wildfire smoke. There are two traditional types of filters in air purifiers - HEPA filters, which are tested to trap a certain size (0.3 microns) of airborne particles, and activated carbon filters, which trap gases. During extreme air events like wildfires, these filters may need to be changed more often.
If you are considering buying an air purifier, the benefits of the products offered by Fresh Air Matters include clinically proven and new technology, which destroys pollutants instead of trapping them. For example, Molekule uses patented technology called PECO (Photo Electrochemical Oxidation) to capture, break down and eliminate fine particulate matter and gaseous chemicals.
If you live in a fire-prone area, it’s a good idea to have an air purifier and extra filters on hand before a fire breaks out. Once wildfires are burning, these items often sell out quickly and can be hard to find. Through The Fresh Air Matters Initiative, we donate air purifiers to teachers across the nation, which includes those most impacted by wildfires and wildfire smoke.
Should You Wear a Mask?
If you have to be outdoors during a wildfire, make sure you choose the right kind of mask and wear it correctly. Wearing a paper mask or a bandanna won’t protect you from the pollutants in wildfire smoke. Respirator masks labeled N95 or P100 can filter out fine particles, although they won’t help with gases in smoke like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and acrolein.
Masks should be labeled with the acronym NIOSH, indicating they’ve been approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Make sure the respirator is fitted tightly to your face to prevent leakage. Men with beards may have leakage if the mask is against their facial hair rather than their skin. It’s important to note that these masks don’t come in children’s sizes, and a too-big mask isn’t very effective. It’s best to keep kids indoors as much as possible when the air quality is poor.
Air quality is a top concern for those who are affected by wildfires in their region and surrounding areas. For more resources on how to stay safe from wildfire smoke and how to prepare for wildfire season, see the Smoke-Ready Toolbox for Wildfires from the EPA.