Air Quality Alerts: Coping With Wildfire Smoke

Air Quality Alerts: Coping With Wildfire Smoke

September 12, 2023


Wildfire air contamination is hazardous because of the superfine particulate matter created by burning wood and ash. These tiny dust particles can go deep into the lungs. But you can take steps to reduce your exposure.

Who’s at risk

Poor air quality is hazardous to everyone. But children, the elderly and pregnant women should take precautions and avoid outdoor air exposure. Also at risk are individuals with underlying medical conditions like:

  • Chronic respiratory and lung diseases 
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Asthma
  • Allergies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breathing in smoke can cause immediate symptoms, such as:

  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Asthma attacks
  • Stinging eyes
  • A scratchy or dry throat
  • A runny nose
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Headaches
  • Tiredness
  • Chest pain
  • A fast heartbeat

Ask your health care professional for advice regarding your medical situation. If you’ve already created an action plan with your doctor, follow it. Wear your medical alert device if you have one. Make sure you have all your medications and don’t skip doses. 

Be on alert for changes in your symptoms. Contact your health care provider if you have trouble breathing, shortness of breath, a persistent cough or other symptoms that don’t go away. Call 911 for medical emergencies.

How to reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke

Ideally, avoid or severely reduce your time outdoors until the air quality contamination has passed. Here are a few tips from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

Things you can doHow they help
Visit the AirNow website.

AirNow provides: 

  • Local air quality reports
  • National and international maps
  • Air quality index and health effect data
  • A free mobile app
Avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor activities.You breathe heavier during strenuous activities, pulling smoke deeper into your lungs. The length of time also plays a factor: The longer you’re outside, the more dangerous for your lungs.
Close and latch windows.Closing the latch helps create a seal that keeps superfine particulate matter from entering your home.
Circulate and filter your indoor air.Using air conditioning (AC) systems, fans and air cleaners with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters helps circulate and capture particulate matter.
Create tight seals around in-window ACs.It’s safe to use in-window AC units if there’s a tight seal on all sides surrounding the AC unit and window. Set fresh air intakes to off. A tight seal reduces the level of smoke entering your home. 
Wear a particulate respirator face mask.Use N95 or P100 face masks with straps above and below the ears to create a tight seal around your face. This seal reduces the particulate matter you breathe into your lungs. You can use them outdoors during air quality alerts, but some people also wear them indoors.
Check air filters on AC units and air purifiers. You may have to change or clean your air filters more often than usual. As you circulate the air in your house, your filters will work overtime to catch as much particulate matter as possible. 
Use filters compatible with your system.Fine and superfine particulate matter may evade some AC system filters. The EPA recommends a filter with a minimum efficiency reporting value of 13 (MERV 13) or greater. But make sure your central AC can handle it. The higher the MERV rating, the tighter the weave on the air filter. A tight weave captures smoke particles but may prevent airflow, causing your AC to malfunction. You can also use your HVAC to recirculate the air in your home by setting the thermostat’s fan to “On.” The air will circulate through your home without pulling from the heating or outdoor AC unit. This can help with air filtration if your HVAC filters are clean and freely allow airflow.
Drink water.Drinking water keeps your respiratory membranes moist, allowing oxygen and carbon dioxide to exchange across respiratory surfaces.
Air out your home when it’s safe.Most wildfire smoke events have periods when the air quality improves to safe levels, even if temporarily. Use these respite periods to air out your house. This will help remove indoor pollutants that build up over time.
Set your vehicle’s air vent options to recirculate. Setting your vehicle’s vent systems to recirculate closes off the outside air intake and draws from the cabin air, reducing the smoke in the air. Your vehicle’s cabin air filter should also help filter pollutants.
Avoid activities that add to indoor pollution.

Avoid these activities since they can further reduce air quality:

  • Smoking and vaping
  • Using gas, propane or wood-burning products
  • Spraying aerosol products like cleaners and air fresheners
  • Frying or broiling food
  • Burning candles or incense
  • Vacuuming (unless using a HEPA filter vacuum)

Remember that smoke may enter your home even if you do all these things. The objective is to keep the air cleaner in your home than outside. If you can’t keep the smoke levels down in your home, seek shelter in a facility with cleaner air. 

Follow safety and weather alerts but watch the heat

If there’s an advisory to stay indoors with closed windows, follow it — except in extreme heat without AC.

If you’re experiencing extreme heat and don’t have AC, do not stay indoors with the windows closed. Extreme heat is life-threatening. Go somewhere with AC, like a cooling shelter, clean air center, mall or library, or stay with relatives or friends with AC. 

Call 311 for information on cooling and clean air centers in your area. 

Create a “clean room” in your home

If you have respiratory issues, live in an area often affected by wildfires or work outdoors, consider creating an in-home “clean room” to give your lungs a break each day. 

The EPA recommends creating a clean room as part of your emergency response plan before wildfires and smoke events. The EPA’s recommendations for clean rooms are as follows:

  • Choose an interior room with as few windows and doors as possible (like a bedroom).
  • Add a HEPA air purifier to your clean room to help minimize particle levels.
  • Ensure the air filter is the right size and type for the room’s size. Keep extra filters handy. 
  • Don’t use air purifiers that generate ozone
  • Damp-mop or damp-dust surfaces. 
  • Don’t use aerosols, room fresheners, candles, or vape or smoke products in the room.

Visit the EPA for more on clean rooms. Seek shelter elsewhere if the wildfire smoke levels are dangerous and you don’t have the time or free space to set up a clean room. 

Pets and livestock

Pets, large animals and livestock also suffer during poor air quality events. Watch for behavior that’s not typical for your animals, such as:

  • Coughing or gagging
  • Eye irritation or watering
  • Excessive nasal discharge
  • Asthma-like symptoms, like wheezing or gasping
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Disorientation or stumbling
  • Reduced appetite or thirst

Indoor pets

Some dog and cat breeds have compacted snouts and nasal passages that restrict breathing. They may need extra help. Avoid long walks and limit time outside to necessary bathroom breaks. 

Birds are also highly susceptible to smoke contamination and shouldn’t be allowed outside. Consider rehoming them to a temporary indoor area like a clean-air garage or basement.

Make sure your pets get plenty of water to keep their respiratory systems hydrated and healthy. 

Livestock and large animals

Limit your animals' outdoor activities and keep plenty of fresh water and food nearby. Relocating their watering and feeding stations will reduce their need to walk or exert themselves. Use low-dust or dust-free feeds to limit dust exposure. And sprinkle or mist the livestock holding areas to reduce smoke hanging in the air. Give your animals four to six weeks to recover after an air quality event before resuming their usual activities. 

Call your veterinarian for help with medical issues or questions about your animals.

Plants

Plants may get a boost from the ash layer in the air. But since they rely on photosynthesis, hazy skies and reduced sun exposure might affect their growth. And heavy ash residue on plant leaves can hinder photosynthesis, leaving a plant to wither. 

If you notice ash on your plants, wipe down the leaves and water them from below, directly on the dirt, not from above. If you water them from above, the ash residue might clog microscopic openings on leaves (stomata) that plants use to take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Clogged stomata can choke or kill plants.

Stay safe

Tune in to the air quality updates in your area and use the community services available to you. And keep an eye on friends, family and neighbors until the smoke clears.

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