The devastation caused by ongoing wildfires across Oregon and California is impossible to put into words. Our neighbors and friends have lost their homes, at least 27 people have died, dozens more are missing, our firefighters are putting themselves in constant danger, and—at the time this was written—we still cannot say that we confidently have the blazes contained.
Not only are the wildfires ravaging our pristine lands and destroying our forests, but even individuals miles away are at risk of experiencing health complications due to the poor air quality that the fires are causing to surrounding areas. Everyone in Oregon and California should understand the importance of monitoring air quality reports and how to minimize their risk of respiratory complications related to the smoke and ash polluting our skies.
What is the Air Quality Index?
You might be used to checking the weather report for the day’s temperature and the probability of rain, but until we fully recover from the current wildfires, familiarize yourself with the air quality index (AQI), the daily air quality report that indicates air cleanliness. Like a thermometer, the AQI is based on a low to high scale at a range of 0 to 500. Higher numbers indicate a higher, more dangerous level of pollution in the air. The index ranges are as follows:
- 0 – 50 Good. Air quality is satisfactory, and pollution poses little to no risk.
- 51 – 100 Moderate. Air quality is acceptable; however, there may be a moderate health concern due to the presence of some pollutants in the area. People who have a high sensitivity to air pollution might be at risk of health complications.
- 101 – 150 Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups. Individuals with health complications, such as asthma, heart disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), may experience health effects.
- 151 – 200 Unhealthy. Everyone may begin to experience health effects due to poor air quality. Those with existing conditions may experience more severe health effects.
- 201 – 300 Very Unhealthy. This range constitutes a health alert warning that everyone is at risk of experiencing health effects due to poor air quality.
- 301 – 500 Hazardous. Noting emergency conditions, the entire population is at risk of severe health issues.
Recently, the AQI across most of Oregon ranged from unhealthy to hazardous, putting millions of people already desperate to protect themselves from COVID-19 at risk of dangerous respiratory complications.
What are the Health Risks of Wildfire Smoke?
As indicated by the AQI, not only does wildfire smoke pose health risks for sensitive populations, but it can create respiratory complications for even healthy individuals. Wildfire smoke is comprised of fine particulate matter, gases such as nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Smoky air:
- Makes it hard for the lungs to carry oxygen to the blood.
- Can irritate the respiratory system and cause irritated eyes, runny nose, a sore throat, cough, phlegm production, headaches, difficulty breathing, or wheezing.
- Can cause an immune response that can lead to inflammation.
- Can increase the risk of some infections such as ear infections in children and pneumonia in older adults.
- Lower respiratory tract infections.
- Increase your risk of lung infections, including COVID-19.
Any amount of exposure to smoke in the area can be hazardous, but what is particularly concerning for Oregonians is the threat of smoke exposure several days in a row. If you are exposed to smoky air—even from a distance—and experience notable and severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath, dizziness, cough, chest pain, or heart palpitations, seek immediate emergency care.
To minimize your risk of smoke-related health risks, follow these recommendations from The American Lung Association:
- Stay indoors. If you live close to a fire-impacted area, remain inside your home unless instructed to evacuate.
- Don’t exercise outside, especially if you smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation.
- Wear a mask with a filter when outdoors. Talk to your doctor as to which mask is best for you. Traditional dust masks are only designed to filter out large pollution particles. An N-95 or N-100 mask will filter out more pollutants, but they can make it difficult for individuals with lung disease to breathe. They are also not designed for children and may be difficult to find due to the COVID-19 crisis.
- Keep children indoors. Young people face additional health risks as their lungs are more susceptible to smoke damage.
- Drive with your car windows closed, especially in smoky areas. Keep your vents closed and turn on the recirculate air conditioning settings to keep smoke from entering your vehicle.
- Close home windows. Close your fireplace damper too. Use a clean air conditioning system and purifier if possible.
- Evacuate if instructed. If your public health officials advise you to evacuate, do so without hesitation.
If you have questions about your health risks as our community continues to battle this season’s wildfires, make a telemedicine appointment to speak with one of our care providers.