Hazy days: wildfire smoke and your health

NOTE: This posting first appeared on our blog in early August of 2017. The health information is still relevant anytime the air quality is declared unhealthy due to wildfire smoke.

Wildfires from British Columbia have resulted in poor air quality here in the Puget Sound, as anyone who takes a look out the window can attest. Puget Sound Clean Air Agency expects the wildfire smoke to remain in the region through at least Friday, August 4 and they have declared the air quality unhealthy for sensitive groups. We asked Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle &  King County, about wildfire smoke and health.

What are the kinds of health problems caused by wildfire smoke?

JD: Wildfire smoke contains small particles and other chemicals that irritate the eyes, Wildfire hazenose, throat and lungs. It can cause your eyes to burn and your nose run, and lead to wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and headaches. It can also aggravate existing lung, heart, and circulatory conditions, including asthma and angina.

Who are in the groups that are more sensitive to wildfire smoke?

Breathing wildfire smoke isn’t healthy for anyone, and even healthy people can have symptoms when smoke levels are high. But it causes more problems for:

  • Infants and children
  • People with lung diseases (e.g., asthma, COPD, bronchitis, emphysema)
  • People with respiratory infections (e.g., cold or flu)
  • People with heart or circulatory problems, or who’ve previously had a heart attack or stroke
  • Adults over age 65
  • Smokers
  • Diabetics
  • Pregnant women

If you are in one of these groups, you should stay inside and keep indoor air as clean as possible. If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure to follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and follow your asthma management plan. Call your health care provider if your symptoms worsen.

Contact your healthcare provider if you experience heart or lung problems, and call 9-1-1 if symptoms are serious. The American Lung Association has also set up a free Lung HelpLine if you have concerns about your lungs from the smoke. To talk to respiratory therapists and registered nurses, call 1-800-LUNGUSA (1-800-586-4872).

What can everyone do to protect themselves from the smoke?

When the air quality is at unhealthy levels, avoid doing exercise or physical exertion outdoors.  It’s a good idea to check the air quality every day when smoke is present at one of the websites below.

As much as possible, stay indoors with the windows and doors closed. But with the current heat wave, it can be pretty uncomfortable if you don’t have air conditioning. If you are in one of the higher-risk groups, you could consider heading out of the area to a place that hasn’t been affected by wildfires, if that’s a possibility. You could also go to a place that has A/C, like a cooling center, indoor mall, a library, a community center, or the movies. If you have to drive, keep the windows and vents closed—most cars can re-circulate the inside air which will keep particle levels lower.

Drink plenty of water. Keeping hydrated reduces the amount of smoke that can travel deep into your lungs, so it helps keep you healthy with both the wildfires and the heat.

What can you do to keep indoor air clean?

You can run an air conditioner if you have one, and set it to re-circulate. You should also close the fresh-air intake and change the filter regularly. Some room air cleaners can reduce indoor air pollution if they have the proper filter.  Our colleagues at the EPA say the most effective air cleaners have a HEPA filter which removes the fine particulates from smoke. Put the air filtration units in the room where you spend most of your time.

Should people wear face masks outdoors?

Don’t rely on paper dust masks for protection. They are designed for large particles, like sawdust, and won’t protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke. You can get some protection from respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 that filter out fine particles. But they don’t work for everyone because they don’t always create a good seal around an individual’s face. Anyone with lung disease, heart disease, or who is chronically ill should consult a health care provider before using a mask. Wearing a mask makes it more difficult to breathe, which may worsen existing medical conditions.

Where can I get more information?

AIRNow has information and links from the Northwest Clean Air Agency, Olympic Region Clean Air Agency, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, State of Washington-Department of Ecology-Air Quality Program

The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has information about local air quality and more.

You can get updates on the wildfire situation on the Washington Smoke Information blog.

Originally posted August 2, 2017.

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I am a risk communications specialist at Public Health - Seattle & King County.

9 thoughts on “Hazy days: wildfire smoke and your health

  1. Does it always improve air quality to keep a car sealed up? There’s a recent study which suggests that may *double* exposure to pollution:

    (published in Science Daily)
    Rush hour pollution may be more dangerous than you think
    In-car air study of commuting cars finds dangers to human health
    Date: July 21, 2017
    Source: Duke University
    Summary:
    Everyone knows that exposure to pollution during rush hour traffic can be hazardous to your health, but it’s even worse than previously thought. In-car measurements of pollutants that cause oxidative stress found exposure levels for drivers to be twice as high as previously believed.

      1. Hi Joy,
        I’m guessing that others have the same question, so thanks for asking. The EPA lists people with diabetes among those more at risk because they are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular conditions. Wildfire smoke can aggravate existing circulatory problems. For more information, see https://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=smoke.index

    1. Hi Lee, we contacted Dr. Joel Kaufman, Interim Dean of the UW School of Public Health, whose expertise is in environmental health. He provided this information about being in cars:

      “Traffic-related air pollution is generally a big part of our concern about air quality in the NW when we aren’t experiencing a regional impact of something else like we are today, and the exposures are substantially higher on, and immediately downwind of, the roadway than anywhere else. So for people who spend part of their day on heavily trafficked roadways, they are likely to get most of their traffic-related air pollution exposure during that time. You can reduce that exposure if you close the windows, and use the recirculate function on the car ventilation system, and make sure you have an effective filter in place in your car’s air intake.

      This doesn’t exactly apply to the situation we’re having now, with the wood smoke settling into our area. But like in the car example, if you stay indoors with windows closed, the exposure will be lower than outside. Air filtration systems, and to some extent air conditioning devices, also make the air cleaner inside.”

  2. I am a Child Care Nurse consultant. My staff have been wondering how long children can be outside at this point; they’re getting antsy!

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