How to Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke has the ability to travel thousands or even hundreds of kilometres. Here are some safety tips and ways that smoking may hurt you.Put on a face mask beforehand if you must go outside on a day with really bad air quality.

As a result of climate change, the United States should anticipate another intense wildfire season with warmer-than-average spring and summer temperatures. This will also result in drier conditions and a higher chance of droughts.

Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

In many parts of the United States, smoke from wildfires in Canada is already causing harmful and even dangerous air pollution levels.

Extreme weather patterns, such as increased winds that disperse smoke further, are a contributing factor to climate change, according to Mary Margaret Johnson, MD, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

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According to Dr. Johnson, people should brace themselves for many more days of unhealthful air, along with a surge of health issues brought on by hazardous gases and particle matter.

Individuals who are exposed to smoke from wildfires may suffer from mild symptoms like headaches, itchy throats, and stinging eyes, as well as more serious responses like breathing difficulties and heart attacks.

Rebecca Saari, PhD, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, states that wildfires are one of the major environmental health risk factors that contribute to premature mortality globally.

Keeping these things in mind, here’s what you should know about the health risks posed by wildfire smoke, including how to protect yourself even if you live hundreds of miles away from the flames.

Ways Wildfire Smoke Can Make You Sick

According to the US National Weather Service, breathing in air pollution from wildfires may make anybody unwell. Poor air quality may cause:

  • Headaches
  • Irritated eyes and sinuses
  • Runny nose
  • Increased coughing and scratchy throat
  • Fatigue
  • Chest tightness

Timothy Daum, MD, a pulmonologist from University of Michigan Health–West in the city of Wyoming, advises going to the emergency department or calling 911 if you have severe shortness of breath or worrying chest discomfort.

Who Is at Highest Risk From Wildfire Smoke?

Pregnant women, toddlers (whose lungs are still growing), and people over 65 are the groups most vulnerable to wildfire smoke, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Breathing problems are more common in those with pre-existing lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Purvi Parikh, MD, a medical adviser for the Allergy and Asthma Network and an allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City, states that smoking aggravates already damaged lungs.

Daum emphasizes that contaminants from smoke from wildfires may exacerbate long-term cardiovascular problems. Individuals who suffer from heart disease should be vigilant for any indications of a heart attack, stroke, or abnormal heartbeat.

According to Daum, “when these tiny particulates enter a person, they cause inflammation and negative effects throughout the body.”

Additionally, breathing in air pollution might disrupt your immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to respiratory viruses such as COVID-19, RSV, and the flu. Harvard University research revealed that the COVID-19 mortality rate increased by 15% in response to even a little increase in airborne particle matter.

Although the long-term consequences of wildfire smoke are unknown, air pollution exposure is thought to be a risk factor for lung cancer by Cancer Research UK.

Professor of epidemiology and oncology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Otis Brawley, MD, states that harm to the heart, blood vessels, and lungs may be lethal and irreversible.

Why Wildfire Smoke Is So Dangerous

The EPA claims that fine particles from wildfire smoke are the greatest hazard to human health, even though all of the toxins they emit have the potential to be harmful.Particulate matter in the atmosphere with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres is known as PM2.5, and here is how these particles are detected.

These minuscule contaminants pose a significant risk since they only make up 3% of the diameter of a human hair. Many larger particles can be filtered out by the body, but PM2.5 may enter the lungs deeply and affect how well they work.

Inhaling PM2 is deemed safe by the EPA.Five levels that, when the annual daily average equals 12 mcg/m3 or less, do not exceed a concentration of 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air (mcg/m3) within a day.

Dr. Johnson issues a warning, saying that health issues may arise with a little increase in PM2.5. “You’ll see an increase in ER visits and hospital admissions for heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmias, and severe breathing problems related to asthma, COPD, or bronchitis with just a 10-unit increase in PM2.5,” the expert claims. “It’s equivalent to smoking nine or ten cigarettes a day when the level hits 200, and that goes for everyone—babies and the elderly alike.”

How to Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

When the air quality above the dangerous threshold, take the following precautions to be safe:

  • Avoid going outside. Remaining indoors is one of the simplest ways to reduce your intake of smoke-filled air. In order to prevent external smoke from entering a home, the CDC advises individuals to keep doors and windows closed, operate air conditioning, and maintain a clean filter. Look for an air-conditioned community centre if you don’t have air conditioning.

Johnson advises that if you must go outdoors at a time when there is a lot of wildfire smoke, it can be slightly better at night, early in the morning, or later in the day when there is less sunshine.

According to her, “there will be less conversion of pollutants to ozone [which is extremely dangerous to a person’s health] when there isn’t sunlight.”

However, Daum notes that there isn’t a certain time of day when the air quality is better than it is.

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Thankfully, he notes, most smartphones come with a weather app that measures air quality. “This can be a trustworthy resource for determining when it’s safe to work or exercise outside.”

  • Keep exercise indoors and to a minimum. Exercise indoors and at a moderate pace, as opposed to a high-intensity one, when the air quality is in the red. This is because physical activity elevates heart rates and breathing rates. “It is best to avoid overexertion,” advises Dr. Brawley.
  • Wear an N95 mask.If you want to spend a lot of time outside, Daum suggests using a N95 mask that fits tightly over your face. “A standard surgical mask or fabric mask won’t likely do anything. Although it probably won’t catch everything, a N95 will still be helpful.
  • Consider using an air purifier.Consumer Reports’ tests of HEPA-filtered air purifiers demonstrate their ability to help remove dangerous particles. Up to 85% less particles might be present in the air thanks to the finest air purifiers. The pricing range for them is from $50 and over $1,000.

Online Air Quality Alerts Can Help You Assess Your Risk

Check air quality warnings (on websites like IQAir and the EPA’s AirNow), which monitor main pollutants including ground level particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and sulphur dioxide, when massive fires break out and cover large areas.

According to AirNow, the range of 201 to 300 on the air quality index (AQI) is highly unhealthy, and anything above is deemed “hazardous.” The AQI in New York City surpassed 400 in the summer of 2023, but Johnson warns that some locations close to flames have exceeded 500. For more vulnerable people, even levels as low as 51 to 200 might cause major health problems.

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