An actionable guide to the health impacts of wildfire smoke, air quality levels, and how to protect your lungs.
It’s May, and wildfire season has already begun in southern California. People may have an inkling that it’s not good for them, but what does that really mean, and what can you do about it?
What’s in wildfire smoke?
According to the EPA: “Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.”
So, while there are other components to wildfire smoke, in general the most concerning for your health are the fine particles, also known as PM2.5, which are small enough to go deep into your lungs.
How does wildfire smoke affect me?
It’s always a good idea to look up the air quality hazards in your specific area, which you can do at AirNow.gov.
You may be familiar with the symptoms of acute smoke exposure: burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing. However lower doses over months and years can lead to serious health complications. As AirNow explains, some people are more at-risk than others to any amount of smoke:
- A person with heart or lung disease
- An older adult
- Children, including teenagers
- A person with diabetes
- A pregnant woman
According to the California Air Resources Board, “For PM2.5, short-term exposures (up to 24-hours duration) have been associated with premature mortality, increased hospital admissions for heart or lung causes, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, emergency room visits, respiratory symptoms, and restricted activity days.” Over the long-term (months to years), they say that “exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to premature death, particularly in people who have chronic heart or lung diseases, and reduced lung function growth in children.”
What do these air quality levels actually mean?
When you visit AirNow.gov and plug in your zip code, it will tell you where your current air quality fits on this range, including PM2.5 specifically (more details here). Even if you don’t live in a wildfire region, this will inform you about the dangers of the five major pollutants that inform the Air Quality Index (AQI).
What should I do to take care of my health?
The AirNow.gov website will provide specific recommendations based on the air in your region, however to prepare for days that may be “hazardous” or above when wildfire season peaks, here’s what they recommend (you can read more here):
- Stay indoors.
- Keep your activity levels low. This reduces your breathing rate.
- Buy an indoor air cleaner. Air cleaners that remove particles include high-efficiency mechanical filters and electronic air cleaners, such as electrostatic precipitators. Avoid using an air cleaner that works by generating ozone, which will increase the pollution in your home.
- If you cannot filter your entire home, make a clean room for sleeping.
- If you must go outside, wear a mask with a full face seal and high-efficiency filters such as N95 or P100. Loose fabric masks or hobby dust masks will not filter PM 2.5 adequately. Read the B2 Filter Technology Review for test data that shows how the B2 filters particles in the PM2.5 range.
In case you haven’t gathered, AirNow.gov is your best bet for up-to-date information about air quality and protection in the United States.
Did you use the B2 Mask during wildfire season last year? We want to talk to you! Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.