Breathing in smoke is bad for you, whether that smoke comes from cigarettes, wood stoves, or a burn pile in the back yard. In the heat of the Washington summer, however, there also are health effects from smoke related to wildfires.
2017 was a year of major wildfires in Washington state, and across the West. There are ongoing research efforts to better understand specific health impacts, but it is clear that the fine particles and toxins in wood smoke cause health problems for a wide variety of people.
According to the Washington State Health Department, wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning vegetation, building materials, and other items. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including:
- Trouble breathing normally
- Fast heartbeat
- Chest pain
- An asthma attack
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Stinging eyes
- A scratchy throat
- Runny nose
- Irritated sinuses
Research on the impact of wildfires on public health has been increasing, and the past year of wildfires has provided lots of data to look at — this story from NPR on the wildfires in Montana, for example.
Thurston County didn’t go through the intense smokiness that some places did, but there can still be health impacts from bad air quality, especially for people who are at higher risk, such as:
- People with heart or lung disease, including asthma or COPD
- Older adults
- Children, including teenagers
- Pregnant women
If you fall into a higher risk category, talk with your health-care provider and have a plan, as well as an extra supply of medications such as inhalers.
There are additional steps you can take to help protect yourself from the impacts of wildfire smoke. Start by keeping track of your local air quality through the www.airnow.gov, or go to http://www.WAsmoke.blogspot.com to track wildfires in the state.
Be sensible about your outdoor activities during a fire event, especially if you are a person with higher risk factors. If it looks or smells smoky, stay indoors, and keep kids in, until the air quality improves. If you don’t have air conditioning, indoor spaces can get dangerously hot in the summer. If this is the case for you, look for an alternative place to stay, such as with another family member, or somewhere with air conditioning.
Another good thing to do to help you stay informed is to sign up for the Thurston County Community Alerts through the Thurston County Emergency Management office. You can learn more here: http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/em/index.htm
Air filters are available that can help keep particle levels lower inside. The Environmental Protection Agency has more information. If you do choose to purchase an indoor air filter, avoid those that “generate ozone” as they can actually increase the air pollution in your home.
Wearing a mask can help, but it is important to note that if you already have respiratory difficulties, you should talk to your doctor, or health-care provider, before wearing a mask, as they can have negative effects on some people.
If you are medically able to wear a mask, it should be a “N95” mask. Most paper masks that people can buy at hardware stores or other retailers are good at trapping large particles, such as sawdust, but not the fine particles in smoke. When worn properly, the “N95” masks will offer some protection. If you decide to keep a mask on hand, see the Respirator Fact Sheet provided by the Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Bad air quality due to wildfire smoke is uncomfortable for most people. For those with health issues, it can be dangerous. It’s always good when preparing for the unknown to hope for the best, and plan for the worst. Fire season is right around the corner, and the time is right to make sure you can maintain your health and the health of your family during a wildfire smoke event.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.