Wildfire Smoke and Your Health

wildfire

Wildfire smoke in your home can be dangerous. But, how dangerous and what can you do to protect yourself and your family? First, let’s state the most important thing: following the instructions of local authorities regarding evacuation. When they say it’s time to go – it’s time to go!

If your home is not in danger of catching fire, but your neighborhood is experiencing smoke from regional wildfires, that smoke can pose health hazards. Let’s face it, if smoke is in the air outside, it will find its way into your home, either from opening doors or windows, or from your furnace or air conditioning unit.

Many of the factors that determine how dangerous such smoke can be are completely out of your control. For example, your age, pre-existing health conditions or even the density of the smoke being blown into your area. In this blog, we will go over the dangers of wildfire smoke along with steps you can take to help mitigate how much it affects you, your family and pets.

What is Wildfire Smoke Made of?

Wildfire smoke is a complex mixture of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particles, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, nitrogen oxides, and trace minerals. The precise makeup of wildfire smoke depends on the exact materials that are burning, the heat at which the material is burning, and weather conditions. Regardless, the gasses and particles found in all wildfire smoke are dangerous for humans to inhale. 

The gaseous chemicals produced in wildfires, such as carbon monoxide, methane, acetic acid, and formaldehyde pose an immediate danger to anyone in the proximity of the fire. Not to mention the dangerous pollutants contained in the particulate matter, which is composed of dirt, dust and soot.

Predicting which way wildfire smoke will blow and how it will affect the air quality can be very difficult. The gaseous chemicals will eventually dissipate into the air, but the particulate matter can remain airborne and travel long distances. These harmful particles can get into your home, eyes, nose and lungs.

What are the Side Effects to Being Exposed to Wildfire Smoke?

As previously mentioned, the largest threat posed by wildfire smoke is coming into contact with the particulate matter. Smoke from wildfires can cause side effects, including:

  • Burning eyes
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • A runny nose

The larger coarse particles typically irritate your eyes, nose, and throat, but for the most part they don’t make their way into your lungs. The smaller particles can be inhaled deep into your lungs. When this happens, the particles will eventually make it into your bloodstream, potentially causing you to become sick.

Breathing in these toxic gasses from smoke can not only aggravate but even worsen symptoms.

Additionally, exposure to even low levels of carbon monoxide found in wildfire smoke can cause people with heart disease to experience chest pain and an irregular heartbeat.

man coughing at home

How Do I Reduce My Exposure to Wildfire Smoke?

Once you confirm that the air quality is compromised by wildfire smoke, there are several measures you can  take to mitigate the risk of inhaling the smoke. If you can smell smoke or if the air looks hazy, those are good indicators that the air quality is poor. You can also use resources, like the EPA website AirNow, for real-time updates on air quality for the US and parts of Canada.

If the air quality reaches unhealthy levels, you should take the following precautions:

  • Limit time spent outdoors.
    • Sensitive groups, such as the elderly, children, and people with heart or lung disease should take extra precaution if a wildfire is nearby.
  • Keep windows and doors tightly closed.
    • Be sure that any air conditioning you have is set to run by recirculating the indoor air and the filter is clean.
  • Avoid activities that increase indoor air pollution.
    • Activities such as smoking, burning candles, and cooking on a gas stove reduce indoor air quality.
  • Use an air purifier.
    • Air purifiers that use a two-step filtration method that target particles and use an activated carbon filter are proven to be highly effective at eliminating harmful particles and VOCs that can be found in smoke.
  • If you’re outside, wear a mask.
    • If it is not possible to avoid being outdoors while air quality is unhealthy, equip the right kind of mask at all times.

Knowledge is your number one defense when protecting your home and family from wildfire smoke. Hopefully none of us will ever have to face the threat of wildfire smoke, but knowing what to do and using an air purifier like the Defender is crucial. For more information on how to stay safe and prepare for wildfire season, check out the Smoke-Ready Toolbox for Wildfires from the EPA.

By Ryan Duggan