Breathing wildfire smoke can have serious health consequences

Young children and individuals with heart or lung conditions are especially vulnerable. Learn how to protect yourself and family members from wildfire smoke.

It probably comes as no surprise to most readers that breathing toxic fumes in a house fire can be deadly. However, many people may not realize the negative effects that breathing wildfire smoke can have on their health as well. Wildfire smoke contains a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning plants, trees and structures in the fire’s path. These microscopic particles can not only irritate a healthy person’s eyes and respiratory system, breathing air that contains them may worsen symptoms for those with chronic heart and lung conditions.

A fact sheet provided by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes common effects from breathing wildfire smoke include coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, runny nose and bronchitis. Those with existing heart conditions may also experience rapid heartbeat and fatigue while individuals with allergies, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may wheeze or have difficulty breathing deeply and fully.

Those most at risk for severe health reactions to wildfire smoke are those with pre-existing heart or lung disease including congestive heart failure, angina, emphysema, asthma or COPD. Because older adults are more likely to suffer one or more of these conditions, wildfire smoke most often affects their age group. Another high-risk age group is young children, because their airways are not yet fully developed. Because of this, children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults do which results in the smoke more intensely affecting them. As children tend to spend more time active outdoors than adults, that further increases their risk of smoke exposure.

So, what do groups like the American Lung Association, Environmental Protection Association (EPA) and CDC recommend people do to protect themselves when smoke from a nearby wildfire exists in your area? Stay indoors with windows and doors closed as much as possible. If you are running an air conditioner, make sure the fresh-air intake is closed and the filter is clean. If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm outside to remain in your home comfortably, move quickly to an alternate location. While traveling by vehicle, keep all windows rolled up and the fresh air intake knob on your dashboard turned off. If conditions deteriorate to the point that officials order residents to evacuate, do not delay. Doing so may endanger your life as well as the lives of those battling the wildfire.

To maintain quality indoor air while wildfire smoke levels are elevated, do not use candles, fireplaces, gas stoves or anything else that burns. The EPA notes that room air cleaners can help by reducing particle levels indoors but caution against using any air cleaner that generates ozone as it will increase air pollution in your home. Make sure that you shop well before a wildfire occurs and purchase a unit that is the correct size and type to accommodate your home.

Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home into the air, so take a holiday from cleaning during the wildfire event! If it is smoky outside, forego outdoor chores such as mowing lawn and gardening, keep the kids indoors and skip your daily run. Of course, it goes without saying that smoking tobacco products should also be avoided as that smoke further pollute already compromised air quality, both indoors and outdoors.

If your region provides a local air quality report (AQI) on daily weather programs or websites, make use of that information to limit your exposure to wildfire smoke. Visit the AirNow website to learn what the current AQI is for your area. Consult the EPA air quality index to see how they rate your current AQI and specific steps they recommend be taken to protect yourself at various AQI levels. Some parts of the United States that do not have equipment to measure AQI, publish visibility guides to help residents determine what the AQI is around their home. Take time now before wildfire strikes to learn which of these resources are available in your area and how to access them quickly.

If you have heart or lung disease, plan ahead by talking to your doctor about specific steps you should take to protect yourself, especially if you live in a wildfire-prone area. Individuals with health conditions that make breathing wildfire smoke more difficult and dangerous may want to purchase a face mask. Paper masks sold at hardware stores for construction work generally will only trap large particles like drywall dust and sawdust, so it is recommended you purchase an “N95” or similar mask and learn how to properly wear it for maximum protection. Visit the CDC respirator webpage and also read their Respirator Fact Sheet to help you make an informed decision about purchasing and using face masks or other respiratory equipment.

If you have additional questions about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, have food safety concerns or need direction on how to clean-up after a disaster such as wildfire, visit the Michigan State University Extension website. You will find helpful articles written by Extension educators on a wide variety of topics, information about upcoming workshops, and links to connect you to the online MSU bookstore, county MSU Extension offices, and experts at MSU Extension and other universities across the country.

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