After a weekend-plus of power outages and wildfire-related evacuations all around us, it’s not news to most of us that the Bay Area has been surrounded by wildfires (not to mention stress and uncertainty!) Consequently our air quality is extremely unhealthy — and it’s not getting a whole lot better any time soon. Given that tough reality, there are some things we can and should do to protect our lungs from smoke pollution.
Check local air quality reports. For real time updates on the air quality in your area, plug in your zip code at the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Now website. I also really like purpleair. You can enter your zip code and the map will show the AQI (Air Quality Index) in your neighborhood.
Keep doors and windows closed. This simple effort can reduce pollutant levels by 50 percent.
Keep your indoor air clean. Close the windows in your house and car. In the car, you can run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Inside the house, the California Air Resources Board recommends mechanical air cleaners with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that collects very small particles and does not emit ozone or other harmful substances. These air cleaners can dramatically reduce indoor particle levels, in some cases by more than 90 percent. See devices that are certified and legal in California here.
Last year during the fires, I used that list as a guide and purchased the above Alen BreatheSmart 75i. (I am not endorsing this brand, it just had good ratings, looked nice with a space-saving profile, and has a special filter for smoke.) I keep it in my bedroom and I notice the difference. Of course, you have to keep the windows closed for them to do their work.
Avoid activities that increase indoor air pollution. Burning candles, gas stoves. incense, and vacuuming can increase indoor pollution.
Wash your nose out and gargle with clean water. Do this multiple times a day until the smoke subsides.
Take a shower and wash your clothing after being outside.
Choose a respirator mask labeled N95 or N100. These masks filter out fine particles and can be found at many hardware stores and pharmacies. They are also sold at Costco and on Amazon. Avoid a one‐strap paper dust mask or a surgical mask that hooks around your ears as they don’t protect against fine particles. And note that they aren't particularly effective for children or for people with facial hair. Don't think that a Bandana, towel, or tissue provides protection. They may feel like they're shielding your lungs from that dry feeling but they won’t actually protect them from the tiny particles in wildfire smoke. Go for the mask.
What's in Wildfire Smoke?
Wildfire smoke is a shifting blend of gases and particles, including carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides and trace minerals. There are thousands of individual compounds, many of them toxic.
When it comes to this smoke, what worries health officials most is the particulate matter, those tiny bits of feathery ash and dustlike soot that are mostly invisible to the eye. These tiny particles travel deep into the lungs and the smallest ones can even enter the bloodstream. The smallest particles are also the lightest, and can travel vast distances on the wind. The particles first damage the body simply by getting inside of it –- triggering inflammatory reactions that themselves can trigger breathing difficulties, heart attacks and even strokes. In fact, within a few days of smoke exposure, damaged lungs can succumb to bronchitis or pneumonia. In pregnant women, exposure to particulates has been associated with premature birth and low birth weight in infants.
The elderly, children and individuals with heart or respiratory conditions are particularly vulnerable and are advised to stay inside, filter their air and avoid smoky areas however they can. Children are especially sensitive to smoke pollution because their airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And remember, masks don't really work for these little people.
Even in the best-case scenario, masks don’t filter out everything. The best thing to do is monitor the AQI, and limit your time outside as much as possible when it's over 50. As for exercising outside, don’t exert yourself any more than you have to. It’s hard for scientists to predict how bad air quality will be in the aftermath of a wildfire, but it’s even harder for them to predict the long-term public health impact.
While there isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent the fires, change the way the wind blows, or clean the air, one thing we can do now is protect our lungs. So take it easy on that cardio this week, especially outside. Maybe this is an opportunity to tackle an indoor project. Want to know what mine is this week? My family's home earthquake emergency kit. :) If that feels like a good project for you this week, please join me! Here’s a resource I am using for gear lists and planning.
Stay tuned next week for some ideas on how to detox your body after wildfire smoke exposure.