The western part of the United States has been covered in wildfires, which burned millions of acres and forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Thousands of buildings and other structures have been destroyed, and the land burned completely.
Thick smoke covers much of the area, turning the skies eerie red and orange, and is getting close to British Columbia and Alberta. By now, tens of millions of people have been exposed to these dangerous conditions.
How Wildfire Smoke Affects Our Health
Wildfire smoke is a rather complex combination of fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, as well as gases, including volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. The ‘ingredients’ of this mixture vary – the fuels that are burning, the temperature combustion, the weather, and the distance from the fire.
Even though wildfire smoke is different from air pollution, it is also incredibly hazardous to human health. These kinds of fires cause episodes of the worst air quality that many people will ever encounter. Fine particulate matter can be inhaled into the lungs, which leads to systemic inflammation that affects other parts of the body. PM 2.5 also affects tremendously the immune system, which may make some people more prone to acute respiratory infections.
Dealing with intense and extended wildfire smoke is difficult, both physically and mentally. Researchers have been studying how this extreme kind of pollution affects the respiratory and cardiovascular health of people exposed to it for many years, and have come up with a few tips to help you protect yourself and your family from the dangers of wildfire smoke.
Understand Your Susceptibility
Some people are at a greater danger of being affected by the smoke, more so, those who have asthma, COPD, heart disease, diabetes, other chronic conditions, or acute infections.
Pregnant women, infants, young children, older adults, and people who work or live outdoors are also more at risk. In addition, anyone who uses rescue medications should have them at hand at all times.
Listen to Your Body
People can have very different reactions to the same amount of smoke, so if you do not feel good, listen to your body and take actions to no longer be exposed, or at least to reduce exposure.
The most common manifestations include eye irritation, sore throat, cough, and headache, which usually vanish when the smoke disperses. Those who have more serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or heart palpitations should seek medical assistance.
Take it Easy
The harder you breathe, the more smoke you inhale, so taking it easy when exercising, for instance, is one of the best ways to restrict your exposure. Overall, a resting adult breathes around six liters (25 U.S. cups) of air per minute, but this can immediately increase to 60 liters (254 U.S. cups) during hardcore exercise.
Use a Portable Air Cleaner
Portable air cleaners with HEPA filters can seriously reduce indoor PM 2.5 concentrations when used in a proper manner. Smaller units can be used to keep a room relatively clean as a place to seek relief. A high-quality furnace filter attached to a box fan can also do a good job in a small room, even though these types of devices should never be left functioning while unattended.
Seek Comfortable Spaces in the Community
Public places like libraries, community centers, and shopping malls usually have massive air filtration systems and rather good indoor air quality. However, access to some of these spaces may be restricted with the ongoing events, so making your home comfortable and clean is more important now than ever.
Drink Lots of Water
Staying well-hydrated helps the kidneys and liver to get rid of toxins, which can then reduce any systemic inflammation caused by the exposure to smoke.
Know Where to Find Information
The air quality effects of wildfire smoke can alter quickly. It is important to know to stay updated on conditions on your region with smartphone apps such as the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) in Canada and SmokeSense in the United States, which can send notifications when air quality starts to get worse.
Pay Attention to Forecasts
Forecasting wildfire smoke is lots of times more challenging than predicting the weather, but the models are enhancing year by year. Tools like FireWork in Canada and BlueSky in the U.S. foresee the smoke levels for the next 48 hours and could be useful.
Overall, remember that taking action in order to reduce exposure in the short-term will also help protect you and your family in the long-term.