How to Protect Your Lungs from Wildfires
Author: Sherry Harrington, RCP
While wildfires have always been a natural part of life in California,
the ones we’ve seen in recent years have been some of the deadliest
and most destructive. Drought conditions and population growth in areas
prone to fire, have added to the fire danger. To complicate things, ample
kindling and hot, dry Santa Ana winds in the South and Diablo Winds in
the North, mean these fires move faster and are more intense, making them
harder to control.
Apart from the obvious danger fire poses to people and property, the smoke
fires produce can affect the air quality and cause serious breathing complications
across the state. As we saw with last year’s
Camp Fire, the air was thick with smoke for weeks here in the Bay Area even though
the fire started in Butte County some 150 miles away. More than just an
inconvenience, it was directly responsible for the increase in hospital
admissions for respiratory conditions that we saw here at Washington Hospital.
Wildfire smoke is a harmful mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide,
nitrogen oxides, particulates, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals.
These airborne particles are easily inhaled, irritating sensitive tissues
deep in the lungs. This can cause a variety of respiratory symptoms, including
persistent coughing, wheezing, phlegm production and difficulty breathing.
Those with existing heart or lung conditions like asthma or COPD, as well
as children, pregnant women and elderly individuals are most at risk for
experiencing serious complications due to smoke inhalation. However, there
are things you can do to protect yourself.
Pay Attention to Local Air Quality Alerts
Conditions can change rapidly and often. That’s why it’s important
to check local air quality alerts before leaving the house. We recommend
AirNow.gov as a resource for air quality reports across the U.S., as well as parts
of Canada and Mexico. Using data from the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),
National Park Service (NPA), and a variety of tribal, state and local
agencies, it offers accurate real-time local and national Air Quality
Index (AQI) information.
Ensuring your health and safety is the most important part of any emergency
plan. It is essential to monitor the progress of nearby wildfires and
know your community’s evacuation plan. It is also important to have
emergency supplies on hand
before a wildfire affects your area; such as respirator masks, inhalers and medications.
This will prevent you from having to hunt down these supplies when the
air quality is at its worst and supplies are limited. During the Camp
Fire, N95 masks were quickly sold out and became unavailable. This left
many people without adequate protection.
Use Respirator Masks
It’s important to understand that not every mask is capable of filtering
out the particulates that are lingering in the air. The masks you use
to reduce the spread of the flu or the ones you pick up at the hardware
store for a home improvement project will not adequately protect you from
smoke exposure. For your protection, we recommend a N95 or P100 respirator
filter mask. Prolonged exposure combined with the humidity of your breath
will limit its filtering effects after a few hours.
Limit Outdoor Exposure
Staying indoors with windows, doors and chimney dampers closed is the best
way to limit your exposure to wildfire smoke. In fact, we advise our patients
to limit all outdoor activities when air quality is at its worst. Even
with a respirator mask, common tasks like going grocery shopping or gardening
can unnecessarily put your lungs at risk.
Indoor Air Quality
The air quality has you stuck indoors, so you’ll want to make sure
your air quality is as clean as it can be. Activities like vacuuming,
dusting or even burning candles can kick up allergens and irritants that
can reduce the air quality within your home. It’s important to keep
yourself safe – and that means limiting activities and exposure
to irritants that put undue stress on your lungs.
Wildfire Smoke and Your Lungs: Do You Need to Worry?