Saturday, July 10, 2010

Air Time: Where there's wildfire, there's smoke – and health threats

By Seth Preston, Communications Manager, Air Quality Program

As I write this on Saturday evening (July 10), wildfires are burning in north-central Washington. You can bet that more will be on the way as summer heat dries out the fuel – grass and other plant life – that’s grown in forested areas.

Fire means smoke. And smoke poses a threat to your health. Here are some things to keep in mind:
  • When there are wildfires in an area or region, the severity of the smoke impacts depends on weather patterns. If the air isn’t moving, the concentration of fine particles increases in the air.
  • If winds are blowing, smoke from a fire can travel rapidly and affect air quality hundreds of miles downwind.
  • Smoke from wildfires can impact the air you breathe and harm your health, especially if you have existing health conditions.
  • The Washington State Department of Health recommends that people who are sensitive to air pollution limit the time that they spend outdoors.
  • The biggest health threat from smoke comes from the fine particles. These tiny particles can get into your eyes and lungs, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illness such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate heart and lung diseases.
  • Children also are more susceptible to smoke for several reasons: Their respiratory systems are still developing. They breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults. They’re more likely to be active outdoors.
  • When smoke levels are high enough, even healthy people may be affected. To protect yourself, it’s important to limit your exposure to smoke – especially if you are susceptible.
Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from wildfire smoke:
  • Pay attention to air quality reports. The Washington Air Quality Advisory (WAQA) is the tool that that Washington State Department of Ecology uses to inform people about the health effects of air pollution. WAQA includes information about ground-level ozone, fine particles and carbon monoxide. WAQA is very similar to the EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI). Both use color-coded categories to show when air quality is good, moderate or unhealthy. The difference is that WAQA shows the health effects of fine particles at lower levels than the AQI does. In other words, WAQA shows that air quality is unhealthy earlier – when there are fewer particles in the air.
  • Use common sense. WAQA and AQI may not have immediate information on conditions in your specific area. If it looks and smells smoky outside, it’s probably not a good time to go for a jog, mow the lawn or allow children to play outdoors.
  • If you have asthma or other lung diseases, follow your doctor’s directions on taking medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
  • If you have heart or lung disease, if you are an older adult, or if you have children, talk with your doctor about whether and when you should leave the area. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not see them.
  • Some room air cleaners can help reduce particulate levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your home. See more information about home air cleaners.
  • Don’t think that paper “comfort” or “dust masks” are the answer. The kinds of masks that you commonly can buy at the hardware store are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. But they generally will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in smoke.

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