Get Ready for Wildfire Smoke Season

Summertime has always been a glorious time of year in the Puget Sound. We’ve had some gorgeous days and it’s not even July 4th (what has traditionally been the unofficial start of summer around here). But the past two summers also included a most unwelcome summer visitor: wildfire smoke. As a result of climate change, we should be prepared for more frequent and larger wildfires during Pacific Northwest summers. The summer forecast is for drier, warmer weather than previous years, and there have already been a record number of small wildfires across western Washington this year. Now is the time to get ready for smoke season, especially taking steps to protect your health.

Wildfire smoke is unhealthy for everyone. It contains small particles and other chemicals that can irritate your eyes, nose, throat and lungs. It can cause your eyes to burn and your nose to 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. Children, older adults, pregnant women and people with underlying cardiovascular disease and lung disease are especially sensitive to wildfire smoke.

Plan for smoky days at home

Anyone with an ongoing health condition, like heart disease, diabetes, or respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) should talk to their healthcare provider about how to decrease their risk on smoky days. People with asthma should be sure to have a care plan for days when air quality is unhealthy. Have inhalers or other medications on hand in case you need them.

If you have children or work with children, plan indoor activities for smoky days when it’s unhealthy for them to be outside. You may want to consider going to places with air-conditioning, like a mall, library, or movie theater. Ask your child’s camp, sports program, or childcare provider about what they will do if smoke levels are unhealthy for outdoor activity.

Consider getting an air purifier to help keep air clean at home. Air purifiers with a  high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter will reduce the number of irritating fine particles in indoor air. A HEPA filter with charcoal will help remove some of the gases from the smoke. Do not use an air purifier that produces ozone. More information: EPA’s Indoor Air Filtration Factsheet

A DIY air cleaner may be an easy and cost-effective way to clean air inside your home. Information on how to construct a portable air cleaner and important safety tips to follow while using one of these fans can be found at Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s DIY Air Filter website.

Keep in mind that heat can also be harmful to your health, so if you aren’t able to go to a place with air-conditioning and it’s too hot indoors, it’s better to open the windows for a short time to cool the indoor space than to overheat.

Plan ahead at work

Of course, some people need to be outdoors for their work and other responsibilities. There are options to reduce exposure to smoke, even for people who work outdoors, but it may require some planning before the smoke arrives.

Talk to your supervisor about possible options to reduce the amount of time you spend outdoors by performing desk work or other alternate tasks on smoky days.  The air quality level can change quickly, so check air quality conditions regularly and if possible, adjust your schedule to avoid the most hazardous smoke conditions. If you must work outside, take frequent breaks in air-conditioned locations (like a grocery store, convenience store, or coffee shop) and drink plenty of water. Keeping hydrated reduces the amount of smoke that can travel deep into your lungs and can help alleviate some symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure.

Limiting your exposure to smoke is the best protection. However, if you must be outdoors consider whether an N95 respirator mask is appropriate for you. Wearing a face mask is not always helpful; in some cases, masks can make certain health conditions worse because it takes more effort to breathe through a mask. Only N95 or N100 type respirators can help, and then only when fitted properly. They do not work for everyone; for instance, they don’t seal properly if you have facial hair and they are not designed for children.  If you use a mask, find one that fits your face closely (you may have to try different brands to find the right one) and replace it frequently. Most masks are good for hours, not days at a time. Check with your healthcare provider if you have questions. More information is available from Washington State Labor and Industries about wildfire smoke and dust masks at work.

Know what to do during wildfire smoke season

Check the air quality forecast. Air quality conditions may change quickly. Go to Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s website or follow them on Twitter (@pscleanair) for the current smoke level report for King County. Their forecasts will let you know when air quality has reached unhealthy levels.

Stay indoors when air quality is at unhealthy levels. One of the most important ways to protect your health is to reduce your exposure to smoky air so that you’re not inhaling the harmful particles.  That means you should avoid outdoor activity as much as possible when the air is smoky and unhealthy, especially strenuous exercise. Athletes, bikers, runners and hikers should postpone their activities until the air quality improves. Don’t try to jog or bike while wearing a mask. It’s better to find an indoor activity until the air clears (yoga, anyone?).

Keep indoor air clean. Close windows and doors to prevent smoke from coming in. If you have air conditioning, set it to recirculate the air, or use a fan to help keep the space cooler. Use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter if possible. Avoid activities that increase pollutants inside the home or stir up particles, like smoking, using candles, or vacuuming. 

We may not get wildfire smoke every summer (fingers crossed!). But data from our partners at the University of Washington indicates that the wildfire season is getting longer as we get less precipitation and warmer temperatures, so we can consider smoky days as part of our new normal.

Take advantage of this time before the smoke clouds our skies. Check with your healthcare provider, make plans with your co-workers and childcare givers, consider purchasing a box fan or air purifier–and most importantly, get out and enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest outdoors while the air is clear!

Throughout the wildfire smoke season, Public Health will work closely with our partners at the Washington State Department of Health, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, and the cities within King County to provide information about how to protect your health. More information is available on our Wildfire Smoke and Health website.

Originally posted on June 19, 2019.

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

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