Beware Inhalation Risks from Wildfires
Heavy blankets of smoke cover huge swaths of Colorado, tell-tale signs that the land is burning and wildfires are near. And while the smoke is a visible warning that danger approaches, the smoke itself can pose a health risk as air quality quickly deteriorates.
This is especially true for certain populations, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), including elderly adults, young children (7 and under), pregnant women, individuals with pre-existing respiratory or circulatory conditions, those with colds or flus, and people with smoke allergies.
Symptoms range from runny eyes and noses to coughing and sore throats to trouble breathing and tightness of the chest. Smoke can also instigate asthma and emphysema, and long-term exposure can inhibit effective immune response.
So what can you do when wildfire smoke blows in your direction? Well, there are a few simple things that will make a big difference, like temporarily locating to another area with better air quality. But sometimes people aren’t able to do that. If that’s the case, the precautions should reflect how heavy the smoke is, how long it lasts, and your household’s risk, according to the CDPHE.
Here are a few key things to do, taken from CDPHE’s website:
- Seek out locations where air is filtered.
- Close windows and doors and stay indoors. However, do not close up your home tightly if it makes it dangerously warm inside.
- Only if they are filtered, run the air conditioning, the fan feature on your home heating system (with the heat turned off) or your evaporative cooler.
- If you have any HEPA room air filtration units, use them.
- In smoky air reduce your physical activity level. Avoid exercise or other strenuous activities in heavy smoke.
- Give extra attention to the things that help keep a person healthy at any time. Make healthy eating choices, drink plenty of fluid, get ample sleep, and exercise in clean air.
- Avoid smoking, secondhand smoke, vacuuming, candles and other sources of additional air pollution.
- Commercially available dust masks may seem like a good idea, but they do virtually nothing to filter out the particles and gasses in smoke.
And what, you might be wondering, are those particles and gasses in smoke? Well, not surprisingly, there’s some nasty stuff that can be found, including particulate matter that can reach deep into the lungs. Then there are polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which may be carcinogenic with protracted exposure and carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and toxic gas produced in high concentrations from smoldering forest fires. Oh, and there are also aldehydes — compounds that irritate eyes and mucous membranes —, volatile organic compounds, and numerous other chemical components.
Suffice it to say, smoke inhalation isn’t a good thing. So make sure that as you prepare for potential wildfires you also make plans for the smoke that inevitably accompanies them.
- Colorado Office of Emergency Management
- Colorado Division of Emergency Management – Fire Information
- National Incident Information Center – information about individual large fires
- Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center
- Rocky Mountain Area Predictive Services