Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images
While a thick yellow haze blanketed much of the eastern US this week, New York City was experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world. pulmonologist dr. Ravi Kalhanof Northwestern Medicine compared it to New Yorkers who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day.
The long-term health risks of smoking are well known, but what are the dangers of short-term exposure to wildfire smoke, such as smoke still drifting south from Canada’s wildfires?
« I think everyone has some degree of risk when air pollution levels are this high, » she says Dr Keith Brenner a pulmonary and critical care physician at Hackensack University Medical Center.
But they are people with pre-existing lung conditions like asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who are most at risk.
Hazy skies can cause itchy eyes, sore throats, headaches, and even some nausea. But it’s the fine particles – 2.5 micron particle size or less in diameter – which are the greatest danger to health. These particles can enter the lungs and for people with lung conditions, they can trigger a flare-up. « Worst-case scenario you may even need to be hospitalized, » says Brenner.
Poor air quality can also be a problem for people with cardiovascular disease.
Research by the Environmental Protection Agency and others have found that exposure to particle pollution increases hospitalizations for serious cardiovascular events such as heart failure, stroke, heart attack, and death.
Pregnant women and children, especially children with asthma, are also at increased risk of harm from exposure to smoke from wildfires. Babies breathe faster and take in more polluted air, she says Dr. Lisa Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. « Children are more susceptible early on because their airways are even smaller. So even a smaller amount of inflammation can hit a child harder, » says Patel. This is especially true for children under five.
Inhaling polluted air can also affect fetal development. « So I think pregnant women should do everything they can to avoid exposure on days when levels are that high, » says Brenner. AND points to several studies showing that hospitalization rates for children with asthma exacerbations increase when air pollution levels are high.
So what’s the best way to minimize your exposure to dangerous air pollution?
First. check the air quality where you live by visiting the EPA website airnow.gov, which has a color-coded gauge that shows the air quality in your area. If the air is rated as unhealthy, the best advice is to stay indoors as much as possible and keep doors and windows closed.
If you have cracks under your doors where air gets in, Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech, suggests rolling up a towel to block it. If you have an air purifier, « run it on high so it’s filtering as much indoor air as possible, » says Marr.
Air purifiers can be expensive, so if you don’t have one, Patel suggests, make one yourself. Obtain a HEPA filter « and hook it up to a box fan and you get about a 50 percent reduction in indoor air pollution, » he says. And he tries to avoid anything that worsens indoor air quality. « If you have a gas stove, try to avoid using it, » says Patel. Do not vacuum or burn candles as this will only add more particles to the indoor air.
And drink lots of water. The fluid keeps the eyes, nose and throat moist, helping to relieve irritation. Also, avoid exercising when the air is bad. The exercise makes you breathe more deeply, driving airborne particles deeper into your airways.
And finally, if you go out, mask up! « Just like with COVID, the best mask is going to be a high-quality, well-fitting, what we call a respirator mask, an N95 or KN95, » says Marr. Surgical or cloth masks are better than nothing, but they don’t offer much protection. N95 masks it can filter out 95 percent of smoke particles, if fitted correctly and dirty air does not escape out the sides.
And you know the drill: Cover your nose and mouth.