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How to Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke

Under: General Health

As devastating wildfires driven by strong winds rage in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and beyond, many people are concerned about protecting their lungs against smoke pollution.

Among those suffering from increased smoke and bad air quality are migraine sufferers.  In general, one of the most difficult migraine triggers to control is air quality.  It is especially important to avoid or filter out as much bad air as possible during these difficult times.

2020 hasn’t been an easy year for anybody. With the COVID-19 pandemic still posing a serious global public health threat, wildfire season has arrived in the U.S with unrivaled and devastating ferocity, destroying entire communities and burning millions of acres of land up and down the West Coast.

Wildfire smoke can pose a serious health hazard for people in the surrounding areas. Smoke can travel hundreds of miles during a fire, affecting even those who live outside the immediate threat of the wildfire’s path. According to the American Lung Association, people over the age of 65 or under 18, those who work outdoors, and individuals with chronic conditions – particularly respiratory diseases like asthma and COPD – may be at a greater risk of suffering the effects of fire smoke.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

What’s in wildfire smoke, and why is it so bad for the lungs?

When a wildfire burns, billions of particles from burnt trees, grass, bushes, and even objects get suspended high into the air.  Smoke is a complex mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons, and other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, and trace minerals. These particles can be big, like the ash that’s left after a fire, or incredibly tiny and invisible to the human eye. Smaller particles are the most damaging, as they can reach deep inside the lungs and trigger inflammatory responses.

In addition to particulate matter, wildfire smoke also contains a mixture of volatile chemicals, carbon monoxide, and different compounds that vary depending on what’s feeding the flames. Different types of wood and vegetation are composed of varying amounts of cellulose, lignin, tannins, and other polyphenols, oils, fats, resins, waxes, and starches, which produce different compounds that are released as smoke when burned. Wildfires that burn through cities or communities can pick up chemicals from plastic and other synthetic materials. In contrast, smoke from fires that blaze through poison oak or ivy may contain trace amounts of these plants’ irritants.

Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, sometimes causing black or brown mucus and phlegm to buildup in the airways. Breathing fire smoke over a prolonged period is more dangerous because it interferes with the blood oxygenation process, raising the risk of lung damage and, in some cases, precipitating cardiovascular events like heart failure, stroke, and heart attack. Short and long-term smoke exposure can worsen respiratory symptoms in people with chronic breathing issues.

One concern of the general public is whether they run an increased risk of cancer or of other chronic health conditions such as heart disease from short-term exposure to wildfire smoke. It is well known that smoke contains carcinogenic components with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) comprising the largest percent and to lesser extent benzene and formaldehyde. People exposed to sufficient concentrations of these types of toxic air pollutants over long periods of time may have slightly increased risks of cancer or of experiencing other chronic health problems. However, in general, the long-term risks from short-term smoke exposures are very low according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Protecting yourself from wildfire smoke

These are some steps you can take to protect you and your family against wildfire smoke dangers:

Check your local air quality reports: If there’s a fire burning nearby, check the air quality reports to make sure it’s safe outside. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website shows you real-time air quality updates based on your zip code.

Stay indoors as much as possible: If the most effective way to protect yourself and your loved ones from wildfire smoke is limiting your time outdoors as much as possible. You may also want to choose a room in your house that you can close off from outside smoke and install a portable air cleaner to filter out harmful particles.

Keep indoor air clean: If you have one, run your air conditioner in the air circulating setting to avoid outside air from getting in. Try keeping all windows, doors, and fireplace hampers closed to prevent smoke from getting inside. According to the American Lung Association, household appliances with HEPA filters can also provide protection from smoke and soot.
Use room cleaners:  It is best to buy an air purifier before a smoke emergency occurs as they are often in short supply during a smoke hazard.  High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter air cleaners and ESPs documented not to produce excess ozone can help reduce indoor particle levels, provided the specific air cleaner is properly matched to the size of the indoor environment in which it is placed.  There are wide ranges of air cleaners and prices to choose from: air cleaners are available as either less expensive portable units designed to clean the air in a single room ($90 – $900) or as larger central air cleaners intended to clean the whole house ($400 – $1500). Central air cleaners can be more effective than room air cleaners because they filter a larger amount of air, although two or more well-placed portable air cleaners can be equally effective and their cost may still be less than the cost
of a large central air cleaner.
The two basic types of air cleaners for particle removal include:
a) Mechanical air cleaners, which contain a fiber or fabric filter. The filters need to fit tightly in their holders, and cleaned or replaced regularly. HEPA filters (and Ultra-Low Penetration Air [ULPA] filters, which are not generally available for residential use) are most efficient at removing particles.
b) Electronic air cleaners, such as electrostatic precipitators (ESPs) and ionizers. ESPs use a small electrical charge to collect particles from air pulled through the device. Electronic
air cleaners usually produce small amounts of ozone (a respiratory irritant) as a byproduct, though some, especially those that are combined with other technologies, may produce substantial levels of ozone (see next section on Ozone Generators). Only ESPs that have been tested and documented not to produce excess ozone should be used. Ionizers, or negative ion generators, cause particles to stick to materials (such as carpet and walls) near the device and are also often a source of ozone. Ionized particles deposited on room surfaces can cause soiling and, if disturbed, can be resuspended into the indoor air. Room air cleaner units should be sized to provide a filtered airflow at least two to three times the room volume per hour. Most portable units will state on the package the unit’s airflow rate, the room size it is suitable for, its particle removal efficiency, and perhaps its Clean Air Delivery Rate, or CADR. The CADR is a rating that combines efficiency and airflow
When choosing to buy an air cleaner, review the list of certified air cleaners from the California Air Resource Board that produce little or no ozone.

DIY (Do-It-Yourself) air filters for wildfire smoke.  
If you are unable to purchase an air cleaner and need a make-shift option, consider a DIY box fan + filter.  Buy a MERV 13 or FPR 10 furnace filter and tape it to the back of a box fan. The filters sell for about $15-$20. If you can not find one of these filters, buy something similar at your local home improvement/hardware store.  Just line up the filter on the back-side of the box fan (the side that pulls the air in, not the side that blows the air out).  The suction from the fan should make the filter stick to the back, but you can also secure it with regular tape.  To be effective, there does not need to be a perfect seal between the air filter and the box fan.  It is okay to have gaps around the filter.  A typical box fan size is 20 x 20 and filter size is 20 x 20 x 1. Place the fan in an enclosed room (a smaller room is best).  Make sure the windows and doors are closed.  When turned on, the fan will pull the dirty air through the back filtered side and push cleaner air through the front.

Unhealthy air quality: How to keep your pets safe in the haze
“The tape is just helpful to keep it tidy so when you shut off your fan the filter doesn’t just flop off,” Erik Saganic, air resources specialist for Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, said.

For those who are not able to obtain an air cleaning machine, there is a DIY option.  Taping an
Cover your face:  Surgical cloth and paper masks will not protect your lungs from wildfire smoke. Wearing an N95 or P100 respirator can reduce your exposure to smoke. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be hard to find respirators that effectively filter out wildfire smoke particles at your local pharmacy or hardware store.

Anti-pollution masks commonly have valves to help let air out and make breathing easier. Unfortunately, for this reason, the valves make the mask useless in preventing the transmission of viruses – because it is designed to let the air out, along with whatever else might be in that air.  These masks should not be considered for the dual purpose of also protecting against Covid-19 or other virus transmissions.

Avoid exercising outdoors:  Exercising increases your respiratory rate, making you breathe in more air than usual and causing you to inhale more noxious particles. Avoid exercising outdoors when there’s a fire in the surrounding area or if you notice your eyes or throat getting irritated.

Check-in with your doctor if you have a chronic or respiratory condition: People with cardiovascular disease, asthma, COPD, and other lung diseases should check in with their doctors about any changes in their respiratory management plan, including changes in medications to cope with the smoke.
Here are additional general recommendations to protect you and your family from wildfire smoke:

  • Roll up your car windows when you are driving your car through smoky areas.
  • Clean up frequently to reduce dust and soot.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding activities that increase smoke pollution, like smoking cigarettes and burning candles or fireplaces.
  • Prepare to evacuate if directed.
  • Keep house pets indoors as much as possible; smoke can also have a negative effect on animals, especially dogs.

We hope you find these tips useful to ensure you and your loved ones stay healthy and stay safe.