Wildfires are destructive, scary and lead to murky skies that eerily smack of nuclear winter; they are also pretty bad for your health (it’s not like us folks in SoCal need our air to be any dirtier). From mildly annoying to downright deadly, wildfire smoke can make breathing a bitch. Here’s to hoping that the topic of widespread smoke inhalation is a little less timely by the time this column is printed, but chances are it’s an issue we in the Inland Empire will all have to face again. This week, your IE Weekly has the info to help you stop, drop and roll with it the next time the hills are alive with fire.
Wildfire smoke is made up of a mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burn. Your biggest problem is actually those microscopic particles which find their way into your eyes and respiratory system, irritating your sinuses and throat, and causing coughing, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose. Fine particles can also aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases (such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma), and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are even linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.
People with heart disease who are in close proximity to a wildfire may experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness-of-breath or fatigue. People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and they may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness-of-breath. When smoke levels are high enough, like the ones we’ve just experienced in SoCal, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms.
So, how best to avoid feeling like you’ve had a 20-year two-pack-a-day habit? First, quit smoking if you really do smoke that much. Second, the Centers for Disease Control tell you to pay attention to local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke, as well as public health messages about what level of outdoor activity is safe. Find out if your community provides reports about the EPA’s Air Quality Index.
Third, use common sense—if it looks smoky outside, don’t go out for a run or mow the lawn. That’s right—wildfires are the perfect excuse for skipping out on your exercise and chores. Further, according to the American Lung Association, ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles like sawdust, will not help as they still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through.
Really, your best bet when faced with smoky conditions is staying indoors. Once you’re in, do your best to avoid adding to indoor pollution. Avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, incense and candles. In another silver-lining flash, it’s also best that you don’t vacuum, as it stirs up particles already inside your home. And, again, don’t smoke. Cigarettes put even more pollution in your lungs and in the lungs of people around you. When driving your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the “recirculate” setting.
Extra precaution should be taken with the sick, elderly and especially with children. Youngsters are more susceptible to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.
Stay safe, be aware and remember, in the words of the great jeans-and-ranger-hat wearing Smokey Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”