wildfire smoke

Is Wildfire Smoke Bad for You?

It’s hard to complain about poor air quality when you think about the communities that are suffering from the actual fire. Towns may be under evacuation, homes and businesses could be burning down, and natural ecosystems destroyed. But the smoke from a wildfire poses its own risk and while smoke isn’t necessarily as terrifying or destructive as the actual flames, it leaves lasting damage as well. So how bad is wildfire smoke for your health?

What is in wildfire smoke?

What’s in smoke from a wildfire depends on what the fire is burning. Smoke is essentially made up of gasses and fine particles created from burned trees and plant material which includes carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, hydrocarbons, and other organics, nitrogen oxides, and trace minerals. However, if structures are burning, smoke can contain different types of chemicals including aldehydes, acid gases, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), benzene, toluene, styrene, metals, and dioxins. 

The type and amount of dangerous particles depend on the heat and intensity of the fire and how much of the material has burned. 

Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke Exposure

The danger of smoke lies in the particles. The particles in smoke are very small, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter which is why the air quality index uses PM2.5 as the standard metric. Because these particles are so small, they can infiltrate human lungs, and in turn, the air sacs, which the body may not be able to defend against. You can’t cough up smoke with phlegm, which is the body’s natural reaction to foreign bodies in the lungs. When people, especially sensitive groups with vulnerable lungs like the elderly, young children, or pregnant women due to the undeveloped fetus, are exposed to smoke particles for prolonged periods of time, the air sacs in the lungs can affect the immune response leading to lung inflammation. 

While most people will feel mild health effects of smoke like a runny nose or itchy eyes, some older adults, especially those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, chronic heart disease, or lung disease, will experience worse symptoms which can turn into serious illnesses like bronchitis or even lead to heart attacks. 

Indoor Pollution Solutions

When wildfires are near and smoke is thick, running an air conditioner with the fresh-air intake closed will help indoor air quality. A HEPA filter, air filter, air purifier, or air cleaner can reduce small particles in the air and it’s best to refrain from vacuuming, using gas stoves, or unnecessarily creating any additional air pollutants.

While a face mask can provide some protection, it has to be the right kind. N95 masks and N95 respirators are the only types that can block such tiny particles in smoke. 

Wildfire season typically runs from mid-summer to early winter, which is also when air quality may be poor. It’s a good idea to pay attention to local air quality reports to make decisions about outdoor activities. Some good websites that track air pollution include the EPA’s https://www.airnow.gov/ and https://www.iqair.com/.

With COVID-19 posing a current public health crisis, symptoms from smoke can look similar to coronavirus as both affect the respiratory system. If you are experiencing shortness of breath, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, it is best to check with your healthcare provider to ensure your symptoms aren’t resulting from the virus. For more information and guidance on the coronavirus and wildfire danger, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)