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Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

  • Synopsis: Published: 2013-06-15 - Information regarding smoke inhalation and possible health effects of smoke from wildfires - Disabled World.
Wildfire
Wildfire - An uncontrolled fire in an area of combustible vegetation that occurs in the countryside or a wilderness area. Other names such as brush fire, bushfire, forest fire, desert fire, grass fire, hill fire, peat fire, vegetation fire, and veldfire may be used to describe the same phenomenon depending on the type of vegetation being burned.

Main Document

Quote: "Experiencing irritated lungs, throat, or eyes as well as having difficulties with breathing, a persistent cough, or chest discomfort when smoke is present are all warning signs to pay attention to."

Dealing with the health effects of wildfire smoke requires not only individual judgment, but community cooperation as well. The amount of smoke people are exposed to depends upon a number of things, from the type of fuel feeding the fire to the direction the wind is blowing and the terrain around the fire. Smoke commonly dilutes over distance, yet plumes of smoke that have been carried for even hundreds of miles may still contain particles that are sufficient enough to impact a person's health.

If you live in an area where air quality measurements are taken, the readings may provide you with a certain amount of warning. Levels of fine particulate matter higher than 89 units per cubic meter of air over a one to three-hour average are not healthy for those who experience lung or heart disease or asthma. Measurements of 139 units per cubic meter of air are not healthy for anyone.

Bear in mind that monitors might report readings only one or two times each day. Smoke and fire conditions have the ability to change in a matter of minutes. Public health officials might not have the ability to issue timely warnings to the public at large.

Another way to measure smoke is by its visibility. If visibility is limited to 3 to 5 miles during dry conditions the levels are unhealthy for people with certain health conditions. If the visibility is down to 2 3/4 miles it is unhealthy for anyone. The most important thing to do is pay attention to how your own body reacts to wildfire smoke.

If you can smell smoke - you are most likely being affected by it. Experiencing irritated lungs, throat, or eyes as well as having difficulties with breathing, a persistent cough, or chest discomfort when smoke is present are all warning signs to pay attention to. These warning signs are all ones telling you to take protective measures or pursue medical attention, especially if you have a history of heart disease or breathing difficulties.

Avoiding Smoke

Avoiding smoke from a wildfire is something that can be achieved through different efforts. Leaving the area may be the most obvious one - people who are sensitive to smoke might need to evacuate the area. You may also consider going to a clean air shelter that has been set up by local health authorities, if one is available. Some evacuation centers have separate interior rooms located away from windows or doors to help people who experience breathing issues. Temporary relief from smoke may be found in places such as theaters, malls, or public buildings that have good air-conditioning systems.

You might also shelter in your own home if your home is air-conditioned and is tightly built. If your home is, you may be able to avoid the worst effects of wildfire smoke. A high-efficiency filter on a whole-house air system is a solid investment. Homes without whole-house air-conditioning might still be safe if you have the ability to seal a room and keep it air-conditioned; be sure to use a good HEPA air filter.

If you do choose to shelter at home, make sure you have enough supplies and medications to remain indoors for at least a five day period of time. Limit physical efforts you make in your home while you do. Also limit any trips you make outside to short ones in an air-conditioned car with the vents closed and the air-conditioner in re-circulate mode if you can.

When there is smoke from a wildfire outside you should limit the amount of outside exercise you do. Schools should cancel sporting events and other types of activities. People who have to work outside such as public safety workers should wear masks and take frequent breaks.

Workplaces such as factories, garages and warehouses that are impossible to seal smoke out of should limit their operations and take steps to protect employees when smoke levels are high. Remember - pets and other domestic animals are sensitive to wildfire smoke and need to be protected too.

Respiratory Masks and Smoke

Disposable particulate respirators rated N95 or P100 by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health offer people good protection from small particles spread through smoke. Unfortunately, these masks do not protect people from other toxic fumes. The masks are sold in a number of hardware stores. To work properly they have to fit tightly and be replaced on a regular basis.

Industrial respirators such as the ones used by painters, fitted with particulate-filtering cartridges, might also be helpful. Paper, 'dust masks or surgical masks do not offer people any protection from wildfire smoke. People who experience lung or heart conditions should not use respirators because they may restrict breathing.

Wildfire Smoke and Health Efforts

During a wildfire it is important to pay attention to your local air quality reports and remain alert to health warnings and news coverage related to smoke. Find out if your community reports the EPA's Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI is based on data from local air quality monitoring and tells you about the daily air quality in your area. It recommends precautions you may take to protect your health. As wildfire smoke worsens the concentration of particles in the air changes and so do the steps you should take to protect yourself.

Use visibility guides - monitoring smoke levels from wildfires is hard because the fires commonly happen in areas that are remote and the smoke impacts are transitory. Wildfire smoke is very visible and it is possible to visually estimate smoke levels and the potential health impacts. In general, the worse the visibility is, the worse the smoke is and the more risks there are to your health.

Use some common sense concerning wildfire smoke. If it looks smoky outside then it is most likely not the best time to pursue outside activities. It is probably not the best time for children to be playing outside.

If you are advised to remain indoors, close your windows and doors. If your home has air-conditioning you can use it, but keep the fresh air intake closed the make sure the filter is clean. No one should use an evaporative cooler if the air quality is poor.

Do not add to the air pollution indoors. Do not use anything that burns such as gas logs, wood fireplaces, gas stoves, or candles. Do not use your vacuum cleaner - it stirs up particles in your own home. Do not smoke, it puts even more pollution in your lungs and the lungs of people around you.

Remember that dust masks are simply not enough. Common dust masks will not protect your lungs from wildfire smoke and the particles contained in it. HEPA masks might filter out small particles, yet they are not suitable for people with lung disease. People with lung disease should follow their respiratory management plan. It is important to contact your doctor if you experience symptoms related to wildfire smoke or if they worsen.

It is also good to ask for help in dealing with mental health issues that may arise - both during and after a wildfire. Wildfires cause different reactions in people; we are all individuals. Some people enter into an automatic mode in order to deal the fire and fail to deal with their emotional side. Other people experience feelings that often times accompany an incident of such incredible magnitude as a wildfire. It is important to be there for others during a natural disaster such as a wildfire.

Resources and Citations:

Health Threat From Wildfire Smoke
www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/facts.asp

Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.

Health Threats from Wildfire Smoke

jeffco.us/public-health/news/2013/health-threats-from-wildfire-smoke/

Smoke may worsen symptoms for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as respiratory allergies, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Health Effects of Smoke Exposure due to Wildland Fires
www.gov.mb.ca/health/publichealth/environmentalhealth/smoke.html

How smoke conditions may affect your health is determined by a number of factors, such as the length of time you are exposed, how much air you breath in, your health status and the concentration of smoke in the air.

Related Information:

  1. Asbestos Dangers for Firefighters - A firefighters job is to combat fires and often those fires occur in older buildings resulting in asbestos exposure and future mesothelioma - (Published 2009-03-24).
  2. Wildfires - Before, During and After the Crisis - Preparing for a wildfire is essential homes that survive a wildfire do because the owners prepared for possibility of a fire - (Published 2012-07-02).
  3. Burn Injuries from House Fires - Almost half of all burn victims suffer their injuries while in their own home often the fault of a third party that made a defective product or provided faulty wiring - (Published 2010-10-03).


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