Wildfire smoke is more dangerous than you thought

Smoke from a wildfire in Pierce County WA, September 2020

By Gordon Williams 

You’re familiar with the adage, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” But did you know that by reversing that to “where there’s fire there’s smoke”, you can help safeguard your long-term health? Read on…

The 2021 wildfire season is off to a fast and furious start in Washington state, driven by record heat and tenacious drought. The situation is serious enough that much of the state entered the July 4th weekend under a burn ban. So, the risk of wildfires is high, and one constant is that — wildfires generate smoke. 

And wildfire smoke, it turns out, is more hazardous to human health than previously thought. 

The warning comes from Dr. Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research. Prunicki studied blood samples from individuals exposed to wildfires. What these studies show is the buildup in humans exposed to wildfire smoke of something nasty called PM2.5. 

“The PM means it is particulate matter,” Prunicki says. “The 2.5 means each particle is no bigger than 2.5 microns.” One micron is equal to one-thousandth of a millimeter. It would take 100 microns to equal the width of a human hair. 

Obviously, you don’t want blobs of any kind circulating through your body even if they are barely visible to the naked eye. It is because they are so tiny that PM2.5 particles are so dangerous. They enter your body when you inhale, are drawn down to the base of your lungs and pass into the bloodstream. “Your blood then carries the particles throughout your system —to your heart and kidneys and elsewhere — doing damage wherever they go,” Prunicki says. 

While wildfire smoke isn’t the only hazard in the air we breathe, it is winning more attention from researchers because wildfires have become more frequent and more destructive — and because wildfire smoke seems to do even more harm than other forms of pollution. 

“The more PM2.5 you are exposed to, the greater the danger to your health,” Prunicki says. Since 80 percent of wildfire smoke is PM2.5, you guard your health by inhaling as little wildfire smoke as possible. 

Even before wildfires become a serious threat where you live, talk to your health care provider about managing conditions such as asthma, COPD, and heart disease. All of them can put you at special risk from wildfire smoke. Children can be at high risk, because their systems are still developing. Seniors can be at risk because they often have multiple underlying medical conditions.  

Learn about the signs that you are in trouble from inhaled smoke. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns of shortness of breath, a cough that won’t stop, or difficulty in breathing. If you have heart disease, be alert to shortness of breath, chest pain, palpitations, or feelings of extreme fatigue.  

If you have such symptoms, the CDC suggests evacuating to a safer place. If the symptoms get worse, call 9-1-1 or go directly to an emergency room.  

Here is what the CDC suggests doing if the air around your home turns smoky:  

  • Avoid physical activity outdoors. Stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you can. Set it to recirculate and close the fresh air intake.  
  • Don’t add to indoor pollution by using food boilers, candles, incense, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Reduce the need to use the stove by stocking up on foods that don’t require cooking. Don’t vacuum unless the machine has a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Vacuuming stirs up particles already in the air. Smoking indoors will simply put more pollution into the air.  
  • Masks are only partly effective in protecting you from wildfire smoke. An N95 respirator mask will filter out fine particulates, but won’t keep out hazardous gases such as carbon monoxide and may not block PM2.5. Masks aren’t approved for small children, and may not fit correctly if you have a beard.  
  • Pets are as vulnerable to wildfire smoke as humans. Keep them indoors and out of the smoke as much as possible.   

Finally, be aware of smoky conditions before visiting a locale, and don’t return home from a shelter until the smoke is mostly gone from where you live.

The American Red Cross is committed to working with individuals and communities to become more resilient in the face of wildfires. Preparing for, sheltering and recovery in the aftermath of these and other disasters. For more information on taking these steps, please visit: RedCross.org.
American Red Cross Northwest Region

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