Tropical storms in the south, wildfires up north. For sure, volatile weather is back with a vengeance. And between the flooding and the smoke, there is the off-the-charts, paint blistering heat. Ah, the lazy, hazy days of summer! Are we having fun yet?
Wildfires pose real threats beyond the obvious. When they rage in or around your part of the country, they produce vast clouds of dangerous, acrid smoke, smoke made up of a mixture of gases and fine particles from the burning trees and other plants. This smoke – which can travel a very, very long way – will hurt your eyes, seriously irritate your respiratory system and worsen chronic lung and heart diseases.
Who’s most at risk from wildfire smoke?
- Older adults are more likely to suffer. This is generally due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases.
- Those people who already have heart and lung diseases, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (including emphysema), angina or asthma. In general terms, anyone with these conditions is at higher risk of having health problems than healthier people.
- Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke. Children’s airways are still developing. They breathe more air per pound of body weight than do adults. And children often spend much more time outdoors, playing and socializing.
Here are some suggestions to help decrease your risk from wildfire smoke:
- Regularly check local air quality reports. See if your community provides reports from the US Environmental Protection Agency‘s Air Quality Index (AQI). Listen and watch for any news or health warnings about smoke affecting your area. And be sure to pay close attention to any public health messages about safety precautions.
- Consult local visibility guides. Many communities have monitors that measure particulate matter in the air. In the western part of the country, some states and communities offer guidelines about the levels of air pollution based on how far people can see.
- Keep the indoor air as clean as possible. If you’ve been advised to stay indoors for a time, keep your windows and doors closed. Run the AC if possible, but keep the fresh-air intake closed, and be sure the filters are clean. You want to keep any outdoor smoke from getting into the house. If you are without AC and it is too warm to stay inside with the doors and windows closed, seek shelter in a designated evacuation center, or leave the affected area altogether for the duration.
- Avoid anything that contributes to indoor air pollution. Burning candles, fireplaces and gas stoves can all increase indoor pollution. Even vacuuming stirs up particles already in the house and make the air quality worse. And don’t smoke: smoking puts even more noxious pollution into the air.
- Prevent wildfires in the first place. This one is a no-brainer. Plan, prepare, build and extinguish campfires and barbecue pits safely. Always comply with community and local regulations when you burn trash or debris. Check first with your local fire department to be sure the weather conditions permit burning.
- Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper comfort or dust makes, commonly found at hardware stores and home improvement centers, are designed to trap big particles, like sawdust. These masks will do nothing whatsoever to protect you against the small particles found in wildfire smoke.
- Evacuate from the path of wildfires. We have all heard the tragic stories of families lost to fires because they waited too long to leave. Listen closely to the news to learn about current evacuation orders, always keeping in mind that fires have minds of their own and change direction often. Follow any instructions from local officials about when and where to go. Take only absolute essentials with you. Follow designated evacuation routes (others may be blocked) and prepare to meet heavy traffic.
- Follow the recommendations of your physician or other healthcare provider about medications and your respiratory management plan if you suffer from asthma or another lung disease. Consider evacuating the area if you are having difficulty breathing. Should your symptoms worsen, check back with the doctor for further advice.
Special thanks, National Center for Environmental Health, Office of Communications, June 2012.