How to Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke Exposure
The consequences of wildfires extend far beyond immediate destruction. Apart from damaging our ecosystem—our air quality, natural resources, and properties—it also harms our internal ecosystem.
Just inhaling wildfire smoke can lead to lung, kidney, liver, brain, and heart diseases.
Unfortunately, our world continues to experience such natural and manmade disasters. For example, New Yorkers recently woke up to an orange haze due to the smoke from nearby wildfires. The city’s air quality reached an extremely hazardous Air Quality Index (AQI) of 342, putting millions of people in danger.
While wildfires are inevitable, it’s best to understand their dangers and take preventive measures in protecting yourself from wildfire smoke. Your goal is to control the harmful effects of uncontrollable fires with the right strategy.
Wildfire Symptoms of Breathing in Smoke
Knowing the signs of wildfire smoke exposure in your body helps you to take action before the situation escalates. So, here are the symptoms of breathing in wildfire smoke:
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Coughing and wheezing
- Headaches and nausea
- Irritated eyes, nose, or throat
- Elevated heart rate
- Asthma attack
The main component that makes wildfires dangerous is the fine Particulate Matter (PM2.5) in the air. These particles are easily inhaled and extremely toxic to your body at elevated levels. They can reach deep into your lungs, enter your bloodstream, and affect organ function.
PM2.5, among other air pollutants, is why the symptoms of inhaling wildfire smoke are related to your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. After all, air quality and respiratory health are closely linked. If symptoms persist after using emergency medication—call for medical help immediately.
Steps to Protect Yourself from Wildfires
Ultimately, you want to have an emergency plan in case a wildfire breaks out and smoke envelopes your neighborhood. Everybody should do their best to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke, especially older adults, pregnant individuals, children, and those with heart or lung disease.
The seven steps to avoid the harmful health effects of wildfires are the following:
- Add air purifiers to your home.
- Monitor your air quality.
- Stay indoors as much as possible.
- Limit your exposure to outdoors.
- Wear an N95 mask when outside.
- Have your medications on hand.
- Monitor your health.
Now, let’s discuss these steps in detail.
1. Add Air Purifiers to Your Home
The first way to reduce air pollution is by using air purifiers in your home. Then, once you have an air filter, you can also set up an air quality monitor to see the impact around you.
For example, you can follow this DIY Box Fan tutorial to help clean the air in your home. It's important to know this can help filter out the particulate matter, but it will not remove the gases emitted by wildfires.
2. Monitor Your Air Quality
Don’t let your eyes decide if the air quality is safe. Particle pollution isn’t always visible until it’s too late. Instead, determine the air quality during a wildfire with a reliable air quality monitor. Any Air Quality Index (AQI) value above 100 means the air is unsafe, while figures between 51 to 100 are considered moderate.
3. Stay Indoors When Possible
Unless you have no choice, stay indoors as much as possible because you are able to control the air quality better inside than outside. You can use the air conditioning to reduce air exchange, keep your windows and doors shut, use an air purifier in the room you spend the most time in, and have an air quality monitor to ensure the air is better than outside.
Also, avoid doing anything that may interfere with indoor air quality, like burning candles, lighting the fireplace, or frying meat. Your goal is to create a clean room and stay in it.
4. Limit Exposure to Outdoors
Next, avoid bringing the air from the outdoors by having guests constantly in and out of your house during high-polluting events like wildfires. Opening your doors constantly brings in a lot more particle pollution, and our immune systems work less effectively once we’ve been exposed to high levels of PM2.5.
5. Wear an N95 Mask Outside
Next, always have the proper gear to go outside. One simple and effective piece of equipment is the N95 mask or respirator, which offers the highest level of protection from wildfire smoke. It filters out particulate matter by at least 95%, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
Because of how effective N95 masks are, the New York state governor distributed a million N95 masks to protect its residents from wildfire health effects.
6. Have Your Medications on Hand
Heading outdoors is a challenge, so ensure that you have your medications on hand. If you’re running low and have a chronic condition, it’s best to ask someone else to go to the pharmacy or have the pharmacy deliver the medicine instead. Stock up on medicine, but also avoid exposure to wildfire smoke whenever you can.
7. Monitor Your Health
Finally, pay attention to your health condition. Any exposure to toxic air pollutants in wildfire smoke may heighten your risk of having a heart attack, especially if you have underlying respiratory conditions (e.g., asthma and chronic bronchitis).
Go back to the symptoms we’ve listed earlier and commit them to memory to monitor yourself and those under your care as well.
Worried About Air Quality?
Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home. Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.