MOST PEOPLE UNDERSTAND THAT INHALING SMOKE IS NOT GOOD FOR OUR HEALTH. NEVERTHELESS, HOW AWARE ARE PEOPLE OF THE DIFFERENT WAYS SMOKE FROM A FIRE CAN CAUSE SIGNIFICANT BODILY HARM, BOTH IN THE SHORT AND LONG TERM?
The long list of the harmful chemicals in wildfire smoke is surprising and terrifying. Smoke from a wildfire actually contains thousands of individual substances, which include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and others.
That being said, it isn’t just about what types of compounds are released by smoke from such fires. Two additional factors bear a considerable degree of importance to how people are affected: distance and size. Firstly, the distance travelled by the smoke itself directly impacts its “age” – or the extent to which it interacts with the sun and other chemicals suspended in the air. To put it simply, The greater the distance the smoke travels, the “older” the smoke particles become, and therefore they increase in toxicity.
Secondly, the size of whatever material comes from the smoke causes that material to behave a certain way. For larger, distinctly visible particles, which many tend to think of as ash, these typically don’t travel far from the fire. On the other hand, smaller particulate matter or aerosols can easily travel by air and at considerably long distances. It’s these smaller particles that often raise a lot of concern in affected areas, as they – specifically the type of particulate matter with a diameter under 2.5 micrometers – correlate with multiple cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, as detailed in a study by the Journal of the American Heart Association. Hence, for that reason, many cities and countries follow guidelines and issue warnings on hazardous air conditions based on a metric for the concentration of PM 2.5.
POTENTIAL SYMPTOMS & ILLNESSES FROM INHALING WILDFIRE SMOKE
THE PROBLEM WITH PM2.5 IS THAT THESE PARTICLES ARE CAPABLE OF BYPASSING THE BODY’S NATURAL DEFENSES, CAUSING NUMEROUS HEALTH ISSUES.
It is important to understand that the PM2.5 metric for air pollution is founded on practical reasons. This defines the cut-off in terms of size for particulate matter that can travel deep into a person’s lungs and cause serious health conditions. For all particles with a diameter larger than 2.5 micrometers, the human body has natural defense mechanisms in place to combat those. One good indicator is whenever you cough up phlegm or blow your nose and notice darkened mucus in the tissue, having spent time around a campfire. That’s a clear sign of your respiratory system doing its job.
The problem is that PM2.5 (and smaller) particles expelled from a fire – when the concentration of smoke is higher and one resides near a wildfire – are capable of bypassing the body’s natural defenses and making their way deep into the air sacs of one’s lungs, which is where oxygen that’s breathed in crosses over into the blood. If you manage to relocate to a safe area and avoid exposure for an extended period, your lungs might be kept unscathed, and all you suffer from are irritations to the eyes and throat. Otherwise, there are detrimental health consequences of long-term exposure to this kind of smoke, especially over periods of days or weeks, which increase your risk of lung damage, cardiovascular or heart disease, as well as viral infection due to suppressed macrophages in the body.
People who experience lung damage or weakened lungs from wildfire smoke may eventually struggle to breathe for a potentially long time unless, of course, proper medical care is given. The most common symptoms include excessive coughing, phlegm, wheezing, shortness of breath, and general discomfort in the chest area. Meanwhile, those with cardiovascular or heart disease may experience similar symptoms – with palpitations added to the list – while also being at greater risk of strokes or heart attacks.
Besides what’s outlined above, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also mention the following cohorts of people who are most vulnerable to becoming seriously ill from prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke, regardless of underlying health conditions:
• Adults aged over 65
• Pregnant women
• Young children (due to their developing lungs and smaller lung capacity)
TAKE THESE MEASURES TO STAY HEALTHY DURING WILDFIRE SEASON
IN PROTECTING YOU AND YOUR LOVED ONES FROM THE DANGERS OF POLLUTED AIR FROM SMOKE CAUSED BY A WILDFIRE, THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE IS TO LIMIT EXPOSURE.
There are several things you can do beforehand, particularly if you reside in a fire-prone area and you’re approaching the warmer time of year when fires are probable.
As for what to buy to improve the air inside your home, consider a portable air purifier or air cleaner that’s specifically designed to reduce particle levels indoors, provided they are the appropriate type and are sized perfectly for each room that needs it. It is highly recommended that you buy and set them up even before a fire occurs, as it makes a drastic difference in living more comfortably at home during such a period.
Also, avoid being outdoors for a lengthy period or doing strenuous activities like cycling or running when an announcement has been made regarding poor local air quality. However, for those instances when you need to go outside to buy groceries or attend to something urgent, give yourself an extra layer of protection by wearing a well-fitted face mask designed with maximum filtration capacity. You can order these easily at AusAir.
And finally, arrange a consultation with your doctor or healthcare provider if you have concerns about a heart or respiratory condition that you or a family member has, which may significantly worsen at the height of a future fire. They will be able to advise when it’s best to leave the area, the amount of medicine you’ll need ready, and also an asthma action plan if you do have asthma. So all in all, ensure you do what's necessary to preserve your health.