Wildfires are to blame for Seattle’s air quality being the worst in the world during stretches of last year — and it could happen again this year.
According to wa.gov, wildfire season officially starts in July. However, there’s already been approximately 400 wildfires reported in Canada so far this year. And recently, New York and other East Coast states were hit with bad air quality for a week due to Canadian wildfire smoke. Residents described conditions outside as smelling like a campfire. The air was thick and the sky was reddish orange — a scene all too familiar for those living in the Pacific Northwest.
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“We know a scenario like that is coming our way again,” Catherine Miele, Ph.D., a pulmonologist with Virginia Mason Medical Center said.
She said how the body reacts to wildfire smoke depends on where it lands in our bodies and that will depend on our body’s reaction to the smoke.
“Wildfire smoke is made up of gases and particles that are produced just from the burning of whatever the fire goes through — vegetation or building materials,” Miele said. “When we breathe that in, depending on the size of those particles, they deposit in different places. So it can cause general symptoms like headache or fatigue.”
The Centers for Disease Control has a list of symptoms to look out for:
Trouble breathing normally
A scratchy throat
Wheezing and shortness of breath
If you suffer from lung disease or asthma, it could make you more sick.
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“If you are someone with increased risk or any increased heart disease, lung disease, then you’re more at risk of being affected by wildfire smoke, but even healthy individuals visit the clinic every year — people come in with new ailments that kind of onset during this time of peak fire season,” Miele said.
“When we inhale wildfire smoke, our lungs say get me inside. Get me an air purifier. Get me a mask,” Bonnie Ronish, Ph.D., a pulmonologist with UW Medicine Harborview Medical Center, said. “And if you can’t do those things, don’t let me stay outside.”
Ronish said that many people have very serious reactions to the smoke.
“And if they have underlying lung disease, it’s very painful and very uncomfortable for them to be around it,” Ronish added. “For the majority of us, we have short-term symptoms, and we want to reduce our risk as much as possible in all ways.”
Those short symptoms for the average person are headaches, more mucus, and fatigue. What can help? Ronish stated N95 masks are better at filtering out the PM 2.5 particles [tiny particles we can breathe in that get into our lungs], but most people are not fit-tested for an N95.
“So it may not have a 100% filtration rate,” she said. “You’re not going to get rid of all particles, but you can decrease the risk a little bit. And it’s you know, if you can tolerate the mask and it’s not super uncomfortable, then it might be worth wearing.”
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Washington’s Department of Health said this is how you can protect yourself and your family:
Stay updated on current and forecasted air quality
Limit the duration and intensity of outdoor physical activity.
Stay indoors with cleaner indoor air
Close windows and doors unless it is too hot to maintain safe temperatures.
Filter indoor air through an HVAC system, HEPA portable air cleaner, or DIY box fan filter. Don’t add to indoor pollution. This is always good practice, but especially when it’s smoky.
Avoid burning candles incense, and wood in fireplaces
Avoid using sprays, diffused essential oils, and fireplaces
Avoid broiling or frying food and limit the use of gas stoves
Avoid smoking indoors
Avoid vacuuming unless your vacuum has a HEPA filter because vacuuming stirs up particle Set air conditioning to recirculate
If unable to maintain cleaner air at home, go elsewhere for cleaner air such as a friend’s place, public space, or an unimpacted area
If you must be outside for a limited duration, consider wearing a properly fitted NIOSH-approved particulate respirator, such as an N95 mask. If you have asthma or other lung diseases, follow your healthcare provider’s advice and asthma action plan if you have one.