I am writing this post in the midst of the 2021 wildfire season. My heart goes out to the many families and communities who have been affected by these fires in these last several years.
As of August 10, 2021 the National Interagency Fire Center states that this year: “Nationally, 108 large fires or complexes have burned more than 2.4 million acres in 15 states.”
Officials have encouraged communities across the continent to prepare for a challenging summer ahead. Colorado, California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington State and Western Canada have all issued warnings about potentially catastrophic fire conditions.
Sadly, fires like these will likely be more frequent in the years to come, so it’s important for us to understand the complications associated with wildfire smoke and how we can prepare for it.
How is Air Quality Measured?
The Air Quality Index (AQI) is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) index for reporting air quality. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern.
Who is at the Greatest Risk from Wildfire Smoke?
According to the CDC, the populations at greatest risk from wildfire smoke include:
- People who have heart or lung diseases, like COPD or asthma, are at higher risk from wildfire smoke
- Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases
- Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke. Children’s airways are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Also, children often spend more time outdoors engaged in activity and play
- Pregnant women may be more likely to be affected by smoke because of physical changes during pregnancy, like increased breathing rates. Pregnant women affected by smoke may also be at risk for problems such as preterm birth and babies born with low birth weight
What’s in Wildfire Smoke?
Many of us know that breathing wildfire smoke is hazardous. A recent study found that in the Western U.S. wildfire smoke attributes for approximately half of all air pollution—and is considered to be the largest contributor of particulate matter (PM2.5) or air pollution molecules smaller than 2.5 microns.
The EPA reports a significant association between particulate matter and health complications such as cardiovascular issues and respiratory problems which occur because these small particles can enter the lungs and even the bloodstream.
In addition, wildfire smoke contains high levels of lead and other metals. Lead exposure is especially problematic, as it’s considered a toxic air contaminant that has been linked with cancer and reproductive problems in adults, and learning deficits and behavioral changes in children.
Many of us in Colorado live with the threat of wildfires and have had the firsthand experience of being unable to go outside on days when the air is grey and thick and ash is “raining”. Some have experienced wildfire evacuations, or even worse, damage to their homes and properties.
However, even people in states less susceptible to fires may still experience the health consequences of wildfire season. Smoke has settled over major cities nearly 3,000 miles from the fires. When smoke “ages” (lingers in the atmosphere and experiences changes with exposure to the sun and chemicals in the air) it can become more toxic.
Ultimately, whether you live in a wildfire-prone state like Colorado or California, or across the country in New York or New Jersey, you are likely breathing in significantly more nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during wildfire season —all of which have the potential to negatively impact our health.
Take a deep breath, we have some better news for you next…
Tips to Stay Safe During Wildfire Season
Taking the following steps to prepare yourself and your home will allow you to “breathe easier” and will provide some peace of mind for you and your family.
My belief is always that we should stay informed but not inundated. In wildfire season, it’s a good idea to know about the fires both near and far.
Avoid being outside when air quality is poor
Remember, anything between 151-200 is considered “unhealthy” for the general public, and anything above 300 is considered “hazardous”. During these periods, avoid going outside if possible, and definitely avoid strenuous outdoor activity during an air quality warning.
These pictures are from our backyard (Saturday August 7th) on a day where the air quality became progressively worse over the hours of 7AM and 4PM. I also took corresponding pictures of my AirVisual App showing the air quality. While Roy did go for a 7AM run, we cancelled our afternoon hike due to the declining air quality.
As a comparison, you can see the photo below of what the mountains normally look like from our yard on a clear summer day—and our pup, Goji, enjoying himself 🙂
Wear an appropriate mask when you go outdoors
If we can thank COVID for one thing, it’s that we all have a stash of masks at home! Keep in mind that not all masks will adequately protect you from smoke particles. A properly fitting N95 or KN95 mask is your best bet.
Avoid activities that contribute to further indoor air pollution
During periods of compromised air quality, it’s helpful to avoid the activities in your home that contribute to indoor air pollution, whenever possible.
For example, burning candles and using your fireplace can increase indoor pollution. For a more detailed explanation about indoor air pollutants, see our blog post Tips to Optimize Indoor Air Quality.
Keep indoor air as clean as possible
As many of you know, we LOVE our AirDoctor air purifiers. We have the AD5000 in our main living area of our home, the AD3000 in our bedroom and in each treatment room at the office, and the AD1000 in our daughter’s room. You can read about why we chose AirDoctor and see the video our 10-year-old made showing the different size units.
When choosing an air purifier, be sure that it’s appropriate for the size of the room and use it at a higher setting during days of poor air quality.
Strengthen your foundation
While we can’t control everything that happens in our external environment, we can take control of our health and take steps to build our resiliency. We believe that focusing on these 10 foundations is always the best place to start.