Preparing for wildfire smoke
Like much of the western U.S., the Spokane area is experiencing more frequent periods of unhealthy air quality due to wildfires. Wildfire smoke contains very small particles and gases, including carbon monoxide. These particles can get into your eyes and lungs where they can cause health problems.
Microscopic smoke particles can travel vast distances, which is why smoke from fires burning hundreds of miles away can affect local air quality. Sometimes smoke is visible in the atmosphere but not necessarily concentrated near the surface where we breathe and therefore where air pollution is measured.
While we can’t predict what the smoke impacts will be each summer, we can be prepared. This starts with understanding why smoke is so harmful and what you can do to reduce your exposure to smoke.
Who is most at risk from breathing wildfire smoke?
Inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people. According to health experts from the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) people most likely to have health problems from breathing smoke are listed below. These vulnerable individuals need to follow their breathing management plans, keep medications on hand and contact their health provider if necessary.
- According to the DOH, persons with, or recovering from, COVID-19 may be more at risk for negative health effects from wildfire smoke exposure because of compromised lung and heart function.
- People with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including bronchitis and emphysema.
- People with respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, colds, or flu.
- People with existing heart or circulatory problems, such as dysrhythmias, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and angina.
- People with a prior history of heart attack or stroke.
- Infants and children under 18 because their lungs and airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
- Older adults (over age 65) because they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung diseases.
- Pregnant women because both the mother and fetus are at increased risk of health effects.
- People who smoke because they are more likely to already have lower lung function and lung diseases.
- People with diabetes because they are more likely to have an undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.
- Pets can also be affected by wildfire smoke.
What symptoms should I be concerned about?
According to the Washington State Department of Health, smoke-related health effects include:
- Coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and runny nose.
- If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.
- People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
- If you have a pre-existing respiratory condition such as asthma, COPD (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema), or allergies, smoke may worsen symptoms (inability to breathe normally, cough with or without mucus, chest discomfort, wheezing, and shortness of breath).
- Seek medical attention when experiencing severe symptoms, such as chest pain or difficulty breathing. Dial 911 for emergency assistance if symptoms are serious.
- If you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath, it is best to treat it like it could be COVID-19. Protect others by staying home. If you are concerned about your health, call your health care provider to discuss COVID-19 testing and other possible reasons for your illness.
How can I reduce my exposure to smoke?
- Check SpokaneCleanAir.org for the current Air Quality Index. The index is updated every hour to incorporate the most recent hour of data. Another great resource for statewide air quality, wildfires and smoke updates is the Washington Smoke blog.
- During periods of poor air quality, know when to limit or avoid your time outdoors. The best way to protect yourself and your family is to stay indoors and keep the indoor air as clean as possible.
- Keep windows and doors closed. Track the air quality and open your windows for fresh air when the air quality improves. Pay attention to the heat indoors. if you don’t have air conditioning and it’s getting too hot, seek shelter a family member’s home or in a public space that has taken the required COVID-19 safety precautions.
- Improve the filtration in your home. Run an air conditioner, set it to re-circulate and close the fresh-air intake. Make sure to change the filter as the manufacturer recommends. It may fill faster when smoke is prolonged.
- Create a “cleaner-air room” in your home using a HEPA filter and change the filter more often when it’s smoky. Some room air cleaners can help reduce particulate levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your home. If you don’t have a HEPA filter, make a DIY box fan filter (see DIY video link on left.)
- Avoid adding to indoor pollution. Don’t smoke or use candles, incense, sprays, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Don’t broil or fry food. Don’t vacuum unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home.
- Check your vehicle(s) air filter, make sure it is HEPA equivalent and change it more frequently when it is smoky.
- Pets can be affected by wildfire smoke too.
WA Wildfire Smoke Info Blog – an excellent resource for current air quality, fires and smoke in Washington state.
WA DOH wildfire smoke resources
Why is Coco Red? Follow Coco and his friends on a new adventure as they learn about wildfire smoke and how it can affect air quality and health. This book is for all children, especially those with asthma, and their caretakers.
Indoor air quality and wildfire smoke – Is your home ready?
Wildfire smoke season is approaching. It’s never too early to prepare. Since a lot of time is spent indoors, you can take steps now to reduce wildfire smoke in your home.