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Wildfire Smoke, Air Quality and Your Health

When fires erupt, air quality plummets, and this directly impacts your health. Here is an overview of how smokey air might make you ill, along with Tap Score’s guide for protecting yourself from wildfire smoke.

Highlights

  • When fires erupt, air quality plummets, and this directly impacts your health.
  • Wildfire smoke exposures between 35 to 150 ug/m3 per day of PM2.5 are approximately equivalent to smoking 1 to 7 cigarettes a day.
  • Stay alert: read your State or Air Management District's Press Releases on the Wildfires.
  • Stay safe: Seal, Purge, Filter: Protect your Home.
  • Protect at-risk family members: Create a Clean Room at Home
  • Do not add additional particle sources to the air you’re breathing (e.g. do not vacuum or light candles).
    • Why is there Smoke in the Air?

      We live in an unprecedented era. An increasing number of larger and more intense wildfires are scorching the earth at a record-breaking pace.

      The largest fire on record hit California this month while another 17 raged across the state. Climate change is here–and it’s intensification of fires isn’t just destroying homes and habitats.

      When fires erupt, air quality plummets, and this directly impacts your health.

      Nitrogen oxides, ozone, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter concentrations can skyrocket alongside toxic local pollutants that get burned into the atmosphere. Put simply–wildfire smoke is bad for you.

      Tap Score’s short guide will get you up to speed on understanding how you can get sick from a wildfire and what to do to protect yourself.

      Can You Get Sick from a Wildfire?

      In short–yes. You may notice some wildfire smoke impacts immediately, while others are long-term, harder to predict and depend on the length and intensity of your exposure to wildfire smoke. People with asthma, pre-existing lung or heart conditions, children, and elderly people are particularly at-risk to wildfire smoke.

      How Bad is Inhaling Smoke from Fires?

      Let’s get some perspective. Very roughly–Berkeley Earth (a nonprofit with lots of air quality data) estimates that a day of breathing in air with  22 μg/m3 of PM2.5 pollution is equivalent to the health effects of smoking 1 cigarette. For reference, this is nearly twice EPA’s criteria air pollutant limit for PM2.5 (12 μg/m3).

      If you're living in a region downwind of a wildfire, you are likely to experience PM2.5 concentrations between 35 to 150 ug/m3, which would be similar to smoking 1 to 7 cigarettes a day.

      Even if you are not directly downwind of a wildfire, regional PM2.5 may be between 12 to 35 ug/m3, which is still similar to smoking a cigarette per day. That's a lot of exposure!

      Short Term Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

      Common short term health impacts of wildfire smoke typically relate to irritation of mucous membranes and lungs. Symptoms listed by the CDC include:

    • Coughing
    • Stinging eyes
    • Scratchy throat
    • Irritated sinuses
    • Headaches
    • Tiredness
    • Chest pain
    • Asthma attack
    • Trouble breathing (rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath)
    • Long Term Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

      In a review of 61 studies looking at health impacts of wildfire smoke, researchers found the most common health impact to be respiratory disease, with the second most common health impact being cardiovascular disease.

      Wildfire smoke also carries known toxins from combustion (polyaromatic hydrocarbons like benzene)–but research linking wildfire smoke to carcinogenic outcomes via these pollutants is sparse. At Tap Score we recommend taking the precautionary principle–so read on about how to protect yourself from potential long-term problems.  

      How to Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke

      If you live in a wildfire prone area–you may be familiar with the hazy sky and burning wood smell that can drift over thousands of square miles. When outdoor air quality gets worse, so does indoor air quality. Researchers estimate that 80% of exposure to wildfire smoke happens indoors. Indoors is the safest place you can be–so it is important to reduce your exposure as much as you can.

      If your area is impacted by wildfire smoke–take the following precautions:

      Step 1. Read your State’s Press Releases on the Wildfires.  

      In addition to local news coverage, if you are in California your local air quality management district is going to release notices and advisories on wildfires and your immediate risk. Most states will also release notices via their department of environmental protection, or a similar department. These reports are good first stop and may also include a visual guide for you to estimate your concentration of inhaled smoke.

      Nationally the EPA tracks all current wildfires and their smoke plumes. You can visit the main AirNow site to find your local air quality index (AQI) based on the publicly run system of air quality monitoring stations.

      EPA calculates AQI for five criteria air pollutants on a scale of 0 to 500 (with 500 being the worst). Typically, an AQI of 100 is equivalent to the national air quality standard for that pollutant, so an AQI near or above 100 is a concern. Among the five pollutants, EPA will report the AQI for the pollutant of most concern for the day.

      Step 2. Seal, Purge, Filter: Protect your Home.

      If you can take this step before wildfire smoke reaches your home–do so. If not, the key to fighting wildfire smoke in your own home in boils down to: seal, purge, filter.  

      Seal up your house to prevent more particles infiltrating close your outer doors, windows, and any major leakage points you can find. If you have a forced heating or a central AC system with a (hopefully) HEPA filter, then crank up the fan setting while keeping the temperature setting 'off' to fill up your house with clean air–this creates a positive pressure that purges pollutants.  Check your filters before doing turning on your HVAC system - if there is something wrong with your filters you may just be creating a new problem, or at least not properly cleaning the air.

      Finally, filter what you breathe either with portable air filter in your home (you can DIY a box fan with a HEPA or filter of rating MERV 13 or better). If you have a portable air conditioning unit, this can double as an air filter.  

      If you can’t purge with a central HVAC system–seal and filter what you can, and consider using a mask that is marked NIOSH and has either a N95 or P100 particulate facepiece respirators here or here.

      Step 3. Create a Clean Room at Home.

      For particularly at risk people–e.g. those with asthma, allergies, and children–or if you have one air conditioning unit and a particularly drafty house–create a designated clean room. In this room, seal, purge, and filter as above. Keep doors and windows closed at all times, and do not do anything that can worsen air quality (Step 4). Often bedrooms are the designated clean rooms, since we spend ⅓ of our day sleeping there anyways.

      Step 4. Don’t Make the Problem Worse!

      Health effects are not always linear, so if you like to smoke, BBQ, light candles, or fry food–then just wait for now. Do not dust or vacuum the house unless you have a HEPA-filter equipped vacuum cleaner. You don't want to add additional particle sources to the air you’re breathing while you're currently inundated. The health effects from those will be even worse than normal because of the background particle concentration.

      Reduce activities that lead to heavy breathing. Don’t run or bike outside and skip lifting if you can’t do it someplace with adequate filtration.

      Finally, do not be fooled by misleading marketing. Ozone generators, marketed as producing “pure air”, “super-oxygen”, and purifying air, are not helping you. These products do not remove particles. Ozone typically irritates airways, and even low levels of ozone can increase the effects other pollutants have on your health. See here for a list of certified indoor air cleaners.

      Questions?

      Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at hello@simplewater.us. We’ll direct you to our air quality expert!

      It's hard to get trustworthy advice when it comes to your drinking water, so we made Tips for Taps to help answer your questions. Order a Tap Score Water Test and receive personalized support from professional engineers and scientists by phone, email and chat.

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