Wildfire Smoke & Your Health
Seeing, smelling and breathing smoke at some point during the hot, summer fire season seems to come with living in the northwest. Across the United States, millions of acres of land burn every year. Some of these fires are"prescribed" or "controlled" fires set to manage forests or agricultural lands. Others are wildfires started by lightning or human carelessness. Fires threaten life, natural resources, and property. Smoke from these fires can be a threat to your health.
What's harmful about breathing smoke?
Some people like the smell of smoke, but it's not good for you. Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn. The biggest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles, that can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate heart and lung diseases – and even are linked to premature death in people with these conditions.
Who is at Risk?
Some people are more susceptible than others. Those with heart or lung disease may experience health effects earlier and at lower smoke levels than healthy people. Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke, and children are also more susceptible to smoke for a number of reasons: their respiratory systems are still developing; they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults; and they’re typically very active outdoors. Children with respiratory diseases, such as asthma, should be monitored closely when particulate matter is elevated.
Individuals can protect themselves by limiting their outdoor activity and taking steps to keep your indoor air as clean as possible by closing windows, doors (unless it is extremely hot and you don’t have air conditioning). Keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean if you may be susceptible.
Here are some additional steps you can take to protect your health:
- Pay attention to air quality reports and stay alert to any news coverage or health warnings related to smoke. Current air quality data for the Spokane area is available online. You can also subscribe to receive a personalized email and/or download a smart phone application.
- If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor if symptoms worsen.
- If you have heart or lung disease, if you are an older adult, or if you have children, talk with your doctor about whether and when you should leave the area. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors, even though you may not be able to see them. If you live in a fire-prone area, plan ahead! Talk with your doctor before fire season, so you’ll know what to do in a smoky situation. Only your doctor can advise you about your specific health situation.
- Use common sense. If it looks smoky outside, it’s not the best time to go outside for a jog or to mow the lawn. And it’s not a good time for your children to play outdoors.
- Run your air conditioner, if you have one. Keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. If you don’t have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter.
- Help keep particle levels inside lower. When smoke levels are high, avoid using anything that burns, such as wood stoves, fireplaces—and even candles! Don’t vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don’t smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs and in the lungs of people around you.
- Air cleaners can help indoors‑but buy before a fire. Some room cleaners can help reduce particle levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your home. If you choose to buy an air cleaner, don’t wait until there‑make that decision beforehand. Note: Don’t use an air cleaner that generates ozone. That just puts more pollution in your home. For more information on air cleaners, go to: www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/residair.html
- Dust masks aren’t enough! Paper or “comfort” or “dust” masks‑the kind you can buy at hardware stores‑are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks generally will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in smoke.
- Respirator masks labeled N-95 or N-100 can provide some protection; they filter out fine particles but not hazardous gases (such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and acrolein). This type of mask can be found at many hardware stores. Common one-strap paper dust masks do not protect against the fine particles in smoke.
Anyone with lung or heart disease and people that are chronically ill should check with their medical provider before using any mask. Using respirator masks can make it harder to breathe, which may aggravate existing medical conditions. The extra effort it takes to breathe through a respirator mask can make it uncomfortable to use them for very long. These devices should be used mostly by people who have to go outdoors. Respirator masks should not be used on children; they don’t seal well enough to provide protection. They also don’t seal well on people with beards. Specific advice on respirator masks can be found in the Wildfire Guide.