The fires are intensifying. Here’s how to protect your health.

Wildfire smoke contains a complex mixture of gases, hazardous air pollutants, water vapor and particulates (or particulate pollution), which pose the greatest threat.

Some of these particles, including dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are so large or dark that they can be seen with the naked eye. But the tiniest of them – microscopic particles that are about five to 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair – can penetrate deep into your lungs and even into your bloodstream. There they can cause inflammation and weaken your immune system.

Although ash and soot from burning wood are among the most concerning types of particulate pollution, smoke from wildfires can also contain other toxic and carcinogenic substances, including chemicals, heavy metals and plastics. Indeed, said Dr. John Balmes, a pulmonologist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco: The smoke from the fires is “about like tobacco smoke without the nicotine.”

Breathing in smoke from a wildfire can make you cough, wheeze, and have trouble breathing. It can irritate the eyes, nose and throat and cause headaches.

Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

People with certain conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart disease are particularly vulnerable, as are those who are very young, very old or pregnant. Even short-term exposures can have long-term consequences: a 2021 study, conducted in California, concluded that a single week of exposure to smoke from wildfires was associated with a 3% increase in births premature.

Lower-income areas and communities of color may also be at greater risk of health threats from wildfire smoke, as they are more likely to breathe in daily pollution from cars, trucks and power plants, a said Keith Bein, atmospheric scientist at Air Quality Research. Center at the University of California, Davis. “It sets you back when a wildfire breaks out,” he said, adding that simultaneous exposure to smoke and smog is an environmental justice issue that “adds insult to injury. insult”.

If a wildfire is close enough that you can see flames or your community is blanketed in smoke and ash, you should be prepared to evacuate if asked to do so, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even if you’re far from the flames, but smoke darkens your skies, your safest choice may be to leave, Dr Prunicki said. If that’s not possible, the best thing to do is probably to stay indoors and take steps to limit your exposure to smoke.

According to the EPA, vulnerable people like the elderly, children and people with heart or lung conditions should avoid going outside when the air quality index – a numerical value from 0 to 500 that indicates pollution air and health risk levels – exceeds 100. over 150 means it is unhealthy for anyone to be outside without a high quality mask.

You can view the interactive fire and smoke map from AirNow, a federal monitoring tool for air quality conditions. PurpleAir can also offer a more local picture of air quality, as can other products and apps, like IQAir and BreezoMeter.

For children, safety issues arise when the air quality index is even lower. Because breathing smoke can increase the risk of asthma in children and could even have irreversible effects on their immune cells, experts recommend that when the air quality index is above 50, caregivers start thinking about keeping children indoors, especially if they already have asthma. .

Credit…Getty Images

Its not always easy. Public health experts agree that parents need to give children space to move around. So a trade-off “is for the child to wear a mask outside,” Dr. Balmes said. But keep in mind that dust masks, surgical masks, and bandanas alone won’t protect your child from smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And higher quality masks, like the N95s, are usually only available in adult sizes, so children may not be fully protected when wearing them. In any case, outdoor playing time should be limited.

According to some estimates, a good air filtration system can reduce indoor smoke pollution by around 50-80%. When the skies turn hazy, if you have central air and heating, close your windows and set your system’s filtration settings to recirculation. Adding a higher efficiency filter, such as a filter with at least a Minimum Efficiency Ratio Value (MERV) of 13, to central air systems makes them even more effective at removing small particles from smoke . If you don’t have central air, portable air purifiers with HEPA filters can work well in small spaces.

Experts warn that you should avoid using air purifiers that rely on and emit ozone, which can be harmful even at low levels and can irritate the lungs. Check with your local government agencies to see if they provide advice or financial support for the purchase of air filters. Low-income people with certain respiratory conditions who live in the Bay Area, for example, are eligible for free portable air filters.

If you can’t find an affordable air purifier, you can make one with a box fan, tape, and high-efficiency filters.

Heavy smoke can sneak into your home through loose seams and cracks; closing them can help. The simple act of closing the windows can reduce pollution by around 30%. If there’s still a barbecue smell inside on a smoky day, placing damp towels around cracks under doors and around windows can slow the smoke from entering your home.

The EPA also recommends avoiding activities like cooking, vacuuming, or smoking on smoky days, which can stir up pollutants already inside your home. And the American Lung Association recommends using a good welcome mat to wipe down your shoes or take them off completely when walking around inside your home, to avoid trace contaminants.

If your indoor space is larger than an air purifier can filter, the EPA recommends dedicating a room as a “clean room” to use as a refuge on days when there is more smoke. But avoid using rooms where you create smoke or other particles inside, such as the kitchen or any room with lots of windows and doors.

Health experts say it is possible. According to Dr. Robin Cooper, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, air pollution can cause stress and inflammation in your brain as it fights off invading particles. And it can compromise executive functioning or cognitive skills that help guide your choices, including working memory and self-control, she added.

“It interferes with your ability to think clearly,” Dr. Cooper said. “Headaches are one of them.”

Direct exposure to a wildfire can increase the risk of certain mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. And there is preliminary evidence to suggest that some people may also experience increased anxiety, fear and stress during or after exposure.

Dr Cooper, who has been in private practice for more than 40 years, said she has seen high levels of anxiety in her patients who have previously encountered smoke from wildfires. One Bay Area mother, she recalls, was so concerned about protecting her child from the smoke of wildfires that she feared she hadn’t become a mother at all.

But making sure you’re prepared for the dangers of wildfire smoke before a fire happens can help, Dr Cooper said. This can include setting aside good N95 masks for smoky days, gathering supplies like bottled water, non-perishable food, personal hygiene products, and flashlights if you need to hide in inside, or to have a “go-bag” ready if you need to evacuate.

Not to mention, Dr. Cooper added, talking with your friends and neighbors about how you feel about climate change and how to prepare for smoke when it comes. “Collective engagement with other people decreases feelings of isolation,” she said. “It builds resilience.”

Limiting your time outdoors is a good start. There is no safe distance from smoke and its health effects can accumulate. So if you must go outside, wearing a high quality mask, such as an N95 respirator, is essential.

Reporters from Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, suggest choosing a mask that filters out exhales as well as inhaled air. You want to check that the mask has a good seal around your nose and mouth. Cloth masks are less effective.

Credit…Thomas Pierre/Reuters

And keep in mind that no mask will protect you 100%. “Wearing an N95 reduces your exposure, but if you have to go outside you will be exposed,” Dr Balmes said.

There is also evidence that you may want to protect your skin when you go out. In a first-of-its-kind study published in 2021, researchers found associations between short-term exposure to smoke and health care visits for itchy skin and eczema.

Some creams and skin care products with labels like “anti-pollution” or “pollution protection” probably won’t help much. Although applying a lotion with emollient properties – such as shea butter, lanolin or petroleum jelly – before going outside can help create an artificial barrier on your skin. Dermatologists advise you to avoid smoking if you can, cover up with long sleeves and pants if you must go out, and cleanse your skin after spending time outdoors to remove pollutants.

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