What do you need to know about wildfire smoke and your health?

What do you need to know about wildfire smoke and your health?


Wildfires, like the ones currently ravenging
California can choke the air of the surrounding communities with smoke. People living in those communities can end
up breathing this smoky air for days or even months until the fire is brought under control. To describe how bad the air is government
agencies commonly use a scale called the Air Quality Index, or AQI, to describe the air
quality in a given area–the higher the number the more polluted the air is. Recently, in San Francisco the AQI reached
271 which is roughly ten times the air pollution the city has on an average day. It’s been estimated that breathing this
air for a day has the equivalent health risks of smoking 10 cigarettes. So, what are the health risks to inhaling
wildfire smoke and how can you decrease your risks? Wildfire smoke is full of gases and tiny particles
from burning vegetation and building materials that can irritate your eyes, nasal passages,
throat, and lungs. They can also trigger an immune response leading
to inflammation. All of this can lead to coughing, difficulty
breathing, a fast heartbeat, chest pain, and it can even trigger an asthma attack. Young children are one of the groups with
the highest risk for difficulties with exposure to smoky air —because their respiratory
tracts are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Other high-risk groups include the elderly,
and people with heart and lung diseases—like asthma. So how can you decrease your risks for breathing
in smoky air? First: Pay attention to the news and listen
for public warnings and recommendations about smoke. Second: limit your exposure. If it is smoky outdoors it’s better to stay
indoors with the windows and doors closed. In addition, if you’re using an air conditioner,
make sure that it’s recirculating air and not drawing air in from the outside. Third: Avoid strenuous outdoor activity. This is one of the few times where it’s
advised to skip that workout as heavy breathing causes you to bring in more of that smoky
air into your lungs. Fourth: Purchase an air purifier. Air purifiers filter particulate matter out
of the air. Most of them are designed to clean the air
in only one room, though, so it’s best to use them where people spend the most time. For example, you may keep it in living room
during the day and move it the bedroom at night. Fifth: Use a respirator. Breathing through bandanas and surgical masks
offers very little protection against smoky air. Instead look for respirators that are labeled
with ratings like N95, R99 or P100. These numbers refer to the approximate amount
of particulate matter that they filter from the air, so N95 and P100 remove close to 95%
and 100% of the particles in the air respectively. The letters refer the ability of the masks
to handle oil-based aerosols, so all letters should work similarly for smoke. Now to work properly, the mask needs to be
sealed against your face, so facial hair can be a problem. Masks also don’t often fit small children
well, who may also not be willing to keep a mask on their face for long. In that case it’s better to keep children
indoors as much as possible. Also, using a respirator may tempt you to
spend more time outdoors which increases your exposure and that defeats the purpose of using
the mask in the first place. Depending on their use the masks can last
for quite awhile, but it is recommended that they are replaced whenever they are damaged,
soiled, or they cause a noticeable increase in breathing resistance. As a final note, even new masks increase breathing
resistance, so they should be used cautiously with people with existing heart and lung problems. All right, as a quick recap … Smoke pollution
can lead to throat, eye, nasal, and lungs irritation and lead to difficulties breathing. To decrease your risk to smoky air, pay attention
to the news for warnings, limit your exposure, avoid strenuous outdoor activity, invest in
an air purifier, and use a respirator. Thanks for watching! If you’d like to watch one of our more in-depth
videos on respiratory diseases, check out our video on Asthma, on Osmosis.org!

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