Wildfire Smoke Safety

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Wildfires are becoming more frequent and destructive in recent years, and 2023 is no exception. Numerous cities from Canada to the Mid-Atlantic states are experiencing a thick haze that almost blots out the sun. The haze is the result of close to 250 wildfires raging north of the border, many of which remain out of control.

This isn’t just an average year for wildfires: Canadian wildfires so far this year have burned more acreage (close to 10 million acres) than you would see in an entire year. A lot more. Wildfire smoke can rise more than 10 miles in the air and be carried hundreds of miles by wind currents. Over 100 million people are thought to be at risk for health issues from inhalation of pollutants.

The situation is so bad that Mayor Eric Adams of New York City has urged citizens to stay indoors, citing severe health risks. Indeed, in the last few days, New York City has had some of the unhealthiest air on the planet.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

It’s thought that higher spring and summer temperatures have led to early snow-melt. Normally, soil dries out once the snow has melted. This has occurred earlier than usual due to the heat, leading to worse drought conditions and a longer wildfire season. The hotter and dryer the weather is, the greater the likelihood that fire events will be more intense, spread further, and burn longer. High pressure fronts are lingering, maintaining high temperatures and little rainfall. A neighboring low pressure front is funneling the smoke southward.

WHAT’S IN WILDFIRE SMOKE?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) categorizes wildfire smoke as a mixture of pollutants, including carbon monoxide, that can cause minor and major health effects to those exposed. Along with biological materials, wildfire smoke often contains traces of chemicals, metals, plastics and other synthetic materials.

Particulate matter in smoke is tiny, no larger than a third of the diameter of a human hair. These particles have no trouble reaching the deepest parts of your lungs when inhaled, including the air sacs (alveoli) that absorb oxygen and enter the bloodstream. It’s thought that the current exposure to wildfire smoke is equivalent to smoking 3-11 cigarettes a day, depending on where you are.

WHO’S AT RISK?

The people most at risk for medical complications from inhaling wildfire smoke include the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those already afflicted with respiratory or cardiovascular problems, like asthma or heart disease. However, at current levels, the smoke has the potential to adversely affect even healthy persons.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS?

Minor symptoms of exposure to toxic smoke include eye irritation, headache, fatigue, sore throat, and sinus congestion. Effects on the lungs and heart are much more concerning.

If you notice a layer of soot on your car from smoke particles, there’s a good chance some have gotten into your lungs. Respiratory symptoms might include:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Asthma attacks
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased nasal congestion and phlegm
  • Bronchitis
  • Chest pains
  • Decreased oxygen levels

Poor air quality also may cause heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and strokes, especially in those exerting themselves physically. The immune system may also be affected.

All this translates to many more ER visits and hospitalizations, and may challenge the current medical infrastructure.

TIPS TO PROTECT AGAINST WILDFIRE SMOKE

Keep an eye on local air quality reports (the US Air Quality Index)(AQI) Air Quality is measured on a points system from 0 to 500. A reading over 200 is considered very unhealthy, and over 300 is hazardous. Follow your municipality’s  health warnings relating to smoke; if warnings are in effect, you’re safer if you avoid spending a lot of time outdoors.

If you’re told to stay inside, keep doors and windows shut. In hot weather, run the air conditioner, but close the fresh-air intake. Use fresh HEPA air filters throughout your air circulation system, including air purifiers.

Indoor pollution may not just be from wildfire smoke. You should, additionally, avoid anything that burns, including fireplaces and even candles. Believe it or not, vacuuming the floors is also a bad idea: It stirs up particles into the air, worsening its already poor quality. Of course, avoid smoking tobacco or other products.

For wildfire smoke, standard surgical masks may not be sufficient. Consider N95 masks. Yes, the N95 was panned as protection against COVID, but COVID viral particles are much smaller than wildfire smoke particles.

This article considered the issues relating to wildfire smoke from distant sources. For information about wildfire safety if it’s actually approaching your home, check out our article on the subject here. Also, here….

Joe Alton MD

Dr. Alton

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