Recent wildfires across the state have sparked concerns about the health impacts of large volumes of smoke and soot. These concerns about air quality increase when the smoke from wildfires combines with the high summer ozone levels that trigger red air days.
UCAIR strategies take on increased urgency during the summer wildfire season. Vehicle emissions compound the effects of smoke and increase ozone levels. When air quality is already compromised due to fire and weather, even small reductions in vehicle emissions can improve local air conditions. Consider alternate transportation options such as mass transit during fire events and eliminate unnecessary trips.
Summer is an ideal time to consider new behaviors to improve air quality. Talk with neighbors and co-workers about opportunities to carpool. Combine errands or shop online rather than hopping in the car. Avoid mowing the lawn or firing up the charcoal barbecue during high ozone days or fire events. Sign up for daily air quality email alerts, sign the UCAIR pledge or use TravelWise strategies. These techniques and many others protect air quality on good air days and reduce harmful emissions when conditions are poor.
During the summer wildfire season, residents often wonder how to protect themselves and their families from the negative impacts of smoke and if the air is safe to breathe. Here are some facts about wildfire smoke along with resources to help residents assess their risk and safeguard their health:
Use Common Sense
If it looks smoky outside, it’s probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. Children should play indoors. Take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is extremely hot outside. Run the air conditioner and keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside.
Help Keep Particle Levels Inside Lower
When smoke levels are high, try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves or even candles. Try not to vacuum, since it stirs up particles already inside homes. Try not to smoke indoors.
Individuals with asthma or other lung diseases should follow the instructions of their doctor regarding medication and an asthma management plan. Call your doctor if symptoms worsen.
Individuals with heart or lung disease, older adults, and those with children should talk with their personal physician about whether and when they should leave the area. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though they are not visible.
Some room air cleaners can help reduce particle levels indoors as long as they are the right type and size. Don’t use an air cleaner that generates ozone.
Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks generally will not protect lungs from the fine particles in smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection. For more information about effective masks, see the
respirator fact sheet
provided by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose. Smoke can make symptoms worse for those with heart or lung disease.
Individuals with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue. People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual and they may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.
When smoke levels are high enough, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms. The National Interagency Fire Center provides information on local wildfires, fire conditions, and wildfire containment.
About Wildfire Smoke
Wildfire smoke is composed of a complex mixture of gases, fine particles, and water vapor that form when organic matter burns. Particulates from smoke are a mixture of solid particles—pieces of wood and other burning solids—and liquid droplets. They tend to be quite small, generally less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, or approximately one-seventieth the width of a human hair.
The greatest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles. Because they lodge more deeply in the lungs, they are a greater health concern than larger particles. Fine particulates get into the eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. They can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases.
Finally, the incomplete burning of wood or other organic materials produces carbon monoxide, the gas in smoke. Its levels are highest during the smoldering stages of a fire.
Who Is Most Susceptible?
Individuals with heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma may experience health effects earlier and at lower smoke levels than healthy people.
Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke, possibly because they are more likely to have heart or lung diseases than younger people.
Children also are more susceptible to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, and they’re more likely to be active outdoors.
Wildfire’s Impact at a Glance