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Wildfire smoke heightens health concerns over air quality

The wildfires raging throughout California and Oregon have caused great concern about air quality and the safety of being outdoors. This is complicated by another public health threat we’re facing – COVID-19 – which creates additional health challenges.  

Dr. Reza Ronaghi, a pulmonologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, explains how wildfires affect air quality and what precautions people can take during the pandemic to limit exposure to smoke and other fire-generated toxins in the air.

How do you know if the wildfires are making you sick?

If you are healthy, minimal exposure to wildfires – such as experiencing a fire once or twice a year – likely won’t make you sick. However, fires can create unpleasant symptoms that are important to look out for such as runny nose, burning and watery eyes, sore throat and chest pain, and shortness of breath.

In the elderly or those with chronic lung conditions, being exposed to smoke can make an underlying condition worse, and can cause worsening of symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath, which can sometimes require hospitalization.

It’s very important to avoid exposure to fires to prevent such symptoms. If you develop any of the above symptoms after exposure to the fires, it is important to seek medical care.

How can people stay healthy and safe during a fire?

The particles from fire that cause lung disease are micromillimeter in size, typically 1/30 the size of a strand of hair, and can embed themselves deep into the lung tissue and cause disease. The most important thing is to stay indoors in order to prevent exposure to these particles.

It’s also important to listen to local authorities, such as fire department and public health officials, when they share information about air quality and whether it is safe to go outside or not.

If they tell you to evacuate your home, listen. If your child’s school is canceled, it is to keep children safe from potentially poor air quality or a potential evacuation. If you are in a voluntary evacuation area, you are likely downwind from a fire and in an area with poor air quality. You should evacuate or stay indoors.

If you have to go outside remember that the regular masks won’t prevent the particles from entering your lungs, and therefore you should use N95-quality masks to prevent exposure to these smokes. Don’t vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don’t smoke. That puts even more pollutants in your lungs. It is also important to make sure all doors and windows are closed, and that there are no cracks or openings to the outside.

What precautions can people take if they have to be outside for their jobs, during a commute or for any other reason?

If you must be outdoors, consider wearing a mask. But understand that not all masks provide equal protection. The best choice is an N95 mask, which covers the nose and mouth and helps protect the wearer from breathing in hazardous pollutants. The mask has to be fitted and sealed against the cheeks; most standard masks are not sealed tightly enough to be effective.

After a fire, when is it safe to resume normal activity?

It’s a good idea to check local air quality reports and news coverage. Local forecasts and air quality information are available on the AirNow website.

And before you make the decision to resume your normal routine, including physical activities outside, make sure that conditions have improved. Remember that visual and smell are not sufficient to determine whether the air quality is safe or not, and therefore you will want to check your local guidance. It’s also important to pay attention to your health. If you’re experiencing symptoms from smoke exposure that aren’t going away, you should seek medical care.

How do the fires impact the COVID-19 pandemic?

COVID-19 guidelines suggest that staying outdoors is safer than staying indoors regarding transmission of the virus. However, during these fire season weeks, it will be important to stay indoors in order to protect your respiratory health. If you are going to be indoors, it’s important to remember to practice social distancing and wear masks when around others. Once the fire season has passed, you can resume outdoor activity.


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