By Olivia Bayuk RN, American Red Cross Volunteer
This September we were once again greeted by a now familiar sight: brown, hazy air blocking the view of surrounding mountains and hills accompanied by the ever-present smell of smoke.
Every year, we experience smoke blowing in from fires in Washington, California, Idaho,
Oregon, Montana, and even Canada. While for most of us, this is simply another irritation to work around, for some of us, this can be deadly.
Wildland smoke contains harmful chemicals and particles that can have devastating effects on people who already live with chronic lung conditions such as asthma, COPD, lung cancer, and others. People who smoke, vape, and are exposed to chemicals regularly at work can also be vulnerable.
According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, wildland smoke can contain carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter, and numerous other chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds. Wildland smoke can be even more harmful if the fire is burning through plastic and garbage rather than just wood and shrubbery. Last year, the Red Cross’s own Gordon Williams wrote an article talking about how some of these particles can be absorbed into your body, causing systemic damage.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are even some studies coming out this year that show wildland smoke can lead to susceptibility in contracting Covid-19. The particles in the smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, and hamper the immune system leading to a greater possibility of Covid-19 infection. At the right time of year, this could also cause greater susceptibility to the flu and pneumonia.
Fortunately, there are simple steps one can take to lower exposure to wildland smoke every year, many of which can be explored on the CDC’s website. Some of these steps will work better for some than others.
To begin with, it is a good idea to monitor the air quality alerts for your area. Most weather sites and weather apps will contain a section that displays the current air quality and any alerts that might be in place.
When the smoke does start to roll in, the best thing to do is stay indoors. Most houses, office buildings, and commercial spaces are air conditioned which helps filter the air. To amplify this effect, you can talk to an HVAC company about possibly installing a higher efficiency filter. Along those same lines, it is important to get your HVAC system serviced on a regular basis. If a higher efficiency filter is not possible or you do not have an air conditioner, the Red Cross recommends purchasing a portable air cleaner to keep the air inside your home clean.
Since the pandemic, many delivery companies now offer their services. To avoid going outside as much as possible, you could look into getting things like groceries delivered. You could also talk to your place of employment about working from home. Unfortunately, this will not work for everyone as some jobs are necessary in person.
Another good plan is to limit physical exertion outdoors. If you enjoy exercising or want to keep exercising to stay health, try exercising indoors.
If you do have a chronic lung condition, make sure you have a good supply of medication on hand. You do not want to run out of your medications when it is smoky outside. If you have a prescription for a rescue inhaler or nebulizer, ensure the equipment is in working condition and the medication is unexpired. You can also talk to your doctor about adjusting your medications for a short period of time to get through the worst of the smoke. If you have a CPAP machine, make sure it gets cleaned regularly. Finally, keep a cell phone close by just in case you need to call 911.
If the smoke gets worse and you do not feel that you will be safe, consider going on vacation or going to visit a friend where the smoke is not as bad. While this will not work for everyone, especially those who must stay in town for work, it might become necessary.
If you feel it will help, you can wear a mask outdoors. However, keep in mind that the mask itself will increase your work of breathing and will also not filter gases such as carbon monoxide. The Red Cross reminds you not to place a wet piece of cloth over your face to block the smoke as moist air can do more damage to your airways than dry air at the same temperature.
Finally, try to avoid adding to the smoke. Steer clear of burning candles in your home, making fried food, using gas appliances, or having bonfires. This also includes avoiding things like smoking and vaping as this not only adds to the smoke in the air but also contributes to lung damage.
While none of us enjoy waking up to the hazy, brown smoke blotting out the sun, there are some things we can do to mitigate its effects so we can continue to lead our lives and enjoy the beautiful Pacific Northwest landscape. Hopefully these steps will help you and your family have a fun and safe summer and fall.