Wildfire smoke contains chemicals and ultra fine particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream. An increase in this type of airborne particulate matter has been linked to numerous health problems including headaches, nausea, dizziness, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart attack. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, the same toxins that come from auto tailpipes, are also produced by wildfires, especially near the flames. Carbon monoxide robs the body of oxygen and can cause headaches, dizziness and asphyxiation. Other chemicals are present too, including formaldehyde, acids and a class of cancer-causing compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Here are some of the known components of wildfires:
1. Particulate Matter - coarse visible and fine invisible particles, including soot and ash, that can reach deep into your lungs and contain cancer-causing (carcinogenic) compounds. 2. Polynuclear armomatic hydrocarbons (PAH) - one class of organic compounds found on the particulate matter from forest fires, wood-stoves, pine needles, and fireplaces, some of which may be carcinogenic. 3. Carbon monoxide (CO) - a colorless, odorless, toxic gas produced in highest amounts for a few minutes after dousing the fire or in smoldering forest fires. 4. Aldehydes - compounds extremely irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes of the mouth and nose. Some like formaldehyde are carcinogenic, while others like acrolein can injure lung tissue. 5. Volatile Organic Compounds - strong irritants, some of which are carcinogenic.
Wildfire smoke poses a very serious health risk as 80 to 90% of wildfire smoke is within the fine particle range. These fine particles, which are generally less than 2.5 microns in diameter, can penetrate deep into the body. Children, pregnant women, older adults and those suffering from existing respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD as well as those suffering from cancer and recent surgery, are even more susceptible to the effects of wildfire smoke particulates.
Smoke can also travel far beyond the main burn zone. Studies show that even a small increase in airborne fine particulate matter can affect your overall health. To combat this serious health threat, local officials will advise the population to stay inside and keep doors and windows closed. While this helps to keep some of smoke out, the small particles from the smoke will eventually still make their way indoors, through cracks and gaps in the building.
The following tips will help you to create a "clean zone" in your home during heavy outdoor smoke from wildfires.
If you do have to go outside, you may want to wear a fine dust mask, as is available though home improvement stores. These masks will typically sell for $20-40. If you do not have access to a mask you may use a wet cloth to breathe through. Do not use simple surgical masks, they are ineffective against small smoke particles.
After closing doors and windows, use duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal cracks around the doors and outside vents.
Replace your furnace filter with a high-efficiency filter upgrade. These are available from most hardware and home improvement stores and cost $10-20. Run your air conditioning system. You can run the fan only, if you are comfortable with the temperature. Constantly cycling the air through you air conditioning system with upgraded air filters, will remove some of the air pollutants.
Don't run your bathroom exhaust fans, since this will cause more polluted outside air to be drawn into the home.
Create a safe-room within your house with the help of a room air cleaner with a HEPA filter as well as a carbon filter. You want a unit with at least 6 pounds of carbon for good gaseous contaminant removal. This will be the room where particularly sensitive members of your family, those with emphysema, allergies or asthma can retreat. If you have the means, buying a couple of machines will not only help your health, but will also help keep smoke from penetrating your belongings and saving you thousands on replacing furniture, clothing and other items that can absorb smoke. Remember that friend in college who smoked three packs a day and smelled like an ashtray even when he wasn’t smoking. Removing that smell from a home costs thousands.
If you continue to smell smoke and experience symptoms when indoors, then consider evacuating to another location, away from the fire and smoke. If you have asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, and you are not responding to your regular medications or you have severe symptoms of headache, dizziness, nausea, prolonged cough, sore throat, or shortness-of-breath, visit an urgent care/emergency room or contact your medical provider.
Listen for public messages of additional precautions that would be announced if conditions change. At most, persons within the area affected by the smoke plume might be advised to evacuate the area.
For more severe shortness of breath, chest pain, decreased mental function or other life-threatening condition, call 911 immediately
In a recent CDC survey of persons exposed to smoke during a fire in California Fewer symptoms were reported in persons who ran a HEPA filter in their homes.
Personal masks were not helpful because smoke particles are too small to be filtered
Public Service Announcements were successful in encouraging persons to stay indoors.
Warning! Stay away from Ozone Generator Sales people walking door to door. The ozone generators sold to the general public are not safe or effective. These people are part of a multi level marketing campaign and will come into your home and offer to leave the machine with you for a week or two. These machines release harmful Ozone into the air, which can cause massive respiratory problems. Visit the America Lung Association or Environmental Protection Agency Websites for more information on Ozone Generators
Health Effects Of Smoke Exposure
Immediate effects of short-term exposure to forest fire smoke include:
Tearing of eyes
Other symptoms often experienced from smoke exposure in combination with physical exhaustion, psychological stress, and poor nutrition include:
Signs of high blood levels of carbon monoxide (CO) include: Headaches
Decreased mental function
Intermediate effects of exposure to forest fire smoke (from days to weeks) include: Lung or airway congestion
Smoke exposure in combination with physical exhaustion, psychological stress, and poor nutrition can lead to: Acute bronchitis
Prolonged exposure. It is very unlikely that you will ever experience this from forest fire smoke and little is known about its effects. The risks are probably the same for cigarette smoking, and include heart disease, stroke, chronic bronchitis and emphysema (COPD), and cancer.
Note: The mixture of particles, liquids, and gaseous compounds found in smoke from wildfires is very complex, and include compounds that can irritate and even injure the tissues of your mouth, nose, throat, and lungs. During past fires in Florida, an increase in emergency department visits was seen for asthma, acute worsening of chronic bronchitis, eye irritation, chest pains, shortness of breath, and wheezing.
Refer to the performance ratings in the air purifier section of the site and look specifically at machines with HEPA filtration and that perform above expectations for VOCs (Volotile Organic Compounds.) Please also remember that an air purifier will only clean the air in the room that it occupies. In most cases you will need to either buy a couple of machines and place them in the main rooms in your home or move the machine periodically from room to room for best performance.