Smoke from wildfires can be far reaching and long lasting. This article from the BBC even suggests that smoke from California wildfires could reach as far as the East Coast. Air quality levels even several hundred miles away can be considered “very unhealthy,” especially for sensitive groups like young children, older adults, and health compromised individuals. The fine particles in smoke contain a variety of chemicals that may have lasting effects on your health (check out the EWG’s health warning). Below are just a few precautions you can take to protect your health when wildfire smoke is present.
1. Know your area’s AQI (Air Quality Index) score
Visit https://airnow.gov to find your location’s current AQI score. You can also get an AQI forecast for the current day and next day. AQI scores range from 0 (healthy) to 500 (hazardous). With wildfire smoke present, AQI levels have been ranging from “unhealthy” to “hazardous”. The Air Now website also offers precautions you can take based on the current air quality.
2. Stay inside with your windows, doors and any outside air intakes closed.
Homes with well sealed windows and doors will keep out some of the smoke particulate. Some experts suggest indoor air quality can be about 1/3 better than poor outside air, so still not a perfect solution. As a rule of thumb if you see or smell smoke outside, stay inside! Keep reading for ways to improve your indoor air quality…
3. Seek refuge in public “filtered air” facilities
Give your lungs a break and seek out a local public facility that has filtered air. Many malls and public libraries have air filtration systems that improve the indoor air quality with filtration vs. cycling outside air. Local authorities may also set up filtered air sanctuaries in areas that are particularly smoky. Check with your local officials if you need help finding clean air facilities.
4. Leave the area until the smoke clears
While this is not a feasible solution for all busy families, if you have the means and flexibility, leave the area until the smoke clears and the air quality returns to a safe level. You can check the map on https://www.airnow.gov to see just how far you will need to travel to find some fresh air.
5. Have a proper face mask available, but it’s not a replacement for staying inside.
Masks rated N95 (see N95 mask example) or P100 (see P100 Mask example) are the only type that will filter out the fine particulate found in wildfire smoke. However, these masks need to be worn properly and replenished regularly to actually work (see this PDF on proper mask usage). These masks are also ill-fitting and less effective for people with smaller faces, bearded faces and children.
Even with a properly fitting and rated face mask, you still need to avoid strenuous and/or extended activity outdoors. These masks also need to be replaced regularly (within a few hours). If they get wet, dirty, or you can smell smoke you need a replacement mask. Other surgical or paper masks won’t do anything to protect your lungs.
Masks are for individuals who have no other choice but to be outside in the poor air quality conditions. Masks are not a replacement for staying indoors or leaving the area. Some safety officials fear masks give people a false sense of security when they are only a temporary protection measure. Staying inside or leaving the area are still the best options for protecting your lung health.
6. Run HVAC on recirculate
Most HVAC systems have a fan that can continuously recirculate air through your home’s intake air filter. You can buy reasonably priced, upgraded air filters at any local hardware store.
7. Use an upgraded HVAC intake filter and replace frequently!
When choosing an air filter during smoke cover this is not the time to save a buck! Stock filters run around $8 each, but to get a filter designed to remove smoke particulate in your home spend closer to $15-$20+ per filter. The filter packaging should list that it can filter smoke particulate.
IMPORTANT: Be sure to replace the filter frequently to ensure you are pulling as much particulate out of the indoor air as possible. Frequently, could be as much as once a week or every few days in poor or smoky air conditions. Visually inspect the filter every few days to see if it needs changing.
8. Run the air in your car on recirculate
Try to preserve the air in your car while driving by hitting the air “recirculate” button on your car’s heating/cooling controls. This will stop the car’s heating/cooling system from pulling in outside air to heat or cool the car’s interior.
9. Preserve the indoor air quality
Avoid and/or decrease activities that decrease the indoor air quality. Things like smoking, lighting candles, stove top cooking and vacuuming increase the particles and dust in your indoor air.
10. Detox your body from smoke and fine particles
Even if you follow all the precautions, it will be difficult to avoid all exposure. Things like increasing your water intake, breathing in herbal steam, loading up on ginger, and using a saline nasal spray are a few things to try. You can read more detox details here.