Wildfire Smoke CAN Affect Your Health – Here’s All You Should Know
I know there’s plenty to worry about these days: the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming flu season, elections, protests and so on. However, Today I want to bring your attention to some information I think is equally important: wildfires.
The year of 2020 proved once and for all that wildfires are a real threat that can happen nearly anywhere, anytime. While there’s not much we can do to prevent them, it’s crucial to know how to stay safe and why this event affects you so much.
The West Coast is burning
Unfortunately, 2020 has been one of the worst years regarding wildfires on the West Coast. More than 3.3 million acres burned in California leading to 22 deaths and more than 4,100 structures ruined. This data was collected by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on September 13th.
The same agency states that 5 of the 20 largest wildfire in the history of California occurred in 2020 alone.
As soon as the wildfires started, governor Kate Brown put more than 500.000 Oregon residents under an evacuation notice. David Blunck, a 40-year-old PhD, is shocked by what is currently happening in his home state of Oregon:
‘I live in Oregon and grew up here, and I can’t ever remember any wildfires being close to anything like this. These are unprecedented.’
Protecting Your Home
If you’re living within a few miles of the wildfires, you should beware of embers found in the air as they can start new fires. If embers get to any roof or gutter that has dry leaves and/or needles, it can start a fire that may burn a house down.
The National Fire Protection Association can help if you think you’re at risk for such events.
Aside from the overwhelming physical harm they do, wildfires also lead to a wave of health issues (respiratory problems in particular). Data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that particulate matter and toxic gases caused by a major fire such as those on the West Coast can be carried through the air for hundreds of miles from the fire location itself. With the current coronavirus attacking your respiratory systems, it’s just a recipe for further disaster.
Wildfires CAN Affect Your Health
Are you familiar with this video?
On September 10th, San Francisco was faced with a seemingly apocalyptic view few of us thought they would witness in this lifetime. The entire city was covered by a deep orange-tinted sky caused by thick fog which travelled from the Northern California wildfires.
Mary Prunicki, M.D., director of air pollution at Stanford University in California, says that smoke from wildfires can travel thousands of miles. Although it starts dissipating after a certain point, it still pollutes the air enough to affect your health negatively.
Residents known to be in areas of high risk for wildfires can check air quality alerts via websites such as IQAir or the AirNow EPA service. These organizations record and share data about ground level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide – all of which can impact your respiratory system.
The most dangerous data to be aware of is an air quality index (AQI) of 201-300. At this point, the air is considered to be ‘hazardous.’ By comparison, Dr. Prunicki states that some areas near the recent fires have topped 500 on the AQI.
How Wildfires Are Connected to COVID-19
Specialists are advising residents to stay at home as soon as their air quality reaches an unhealthy level and keep all windows closed. However, this can also pose a threat to people’s health in terms of COVID-19.
Kathy Lofy, MD, health officer at the Washington State Department of Health, explains that spending time indoors with multiple people and poor ventilation creates the perfect conditions for a SARS-CoV-2 transmission.
Furthermore, a small study conducted by the Harvard University revealed that even the smallest rise in particulate matter in the air coincided with a 15% increase in COVID-19 death rates. Why?
As Dr. Prunicki explains, air pollution weakens the immune system to the point it’s extremely dysfunctional. Therefore, not only does this make the COVID-19 transmission easier, but it also increases the likelihood of developing severe symptoms.
Wearing a mask matters…again
The pandemic taught us why wearing a mask is so important to our health. Once again, experts like EPA advise people in areas affected by wildfires to wear an N95 mask as it can keep you safe from harmful smoke particles.
However, this type of mask is mostly reserved for healthcare workers so it may be difficult to get one. On the other hand, N-95 masks featuring exhalation valves (easier to find) can protect you from wildfire smoke, but it won’t keep you safe from COVID-19.
Either way, any type of mask is better than nothing at all so that’s what you should keep in mind.
- Wildfire smoke can cause pollution for thousands of miles
- Make sure your roof and surroundings are safe against fire embers
- Lock yourself indoors only with close family if possible
- Always wear a mask and other types of coverings when going out
What’s your experience with wildfires and what are you doing to stay safe? Share your answers in the comment section and let’s keep each other healthy!