'Dust masks aren't enough!' What you need to know about health risks from wildfire smoke
EUGENE, Ore. - The forest fire smoke choking Oregon contains extreme concentrations of a pollutant linked to serious health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The pollutant is called PM2.5 - that's short for "particulate matter" less than 2.5 micrometers in size.
"The size of particles is directly linked to their potential for causing health problems," according to EPA. "Small particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream."
The EPA says "numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including:"
- premature death in people with heart or lung disease
- nonfatal heart attacks
- irregular heartbeat
- aggravated asthma
- decreased lung function
- increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.
The EPA says the smoke is affecting you if you experience "burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing."
If you experience symptoms, get out of the smoke, EPA says.
People with heart diseases "might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue. People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath."
"In general, the longterm risks from short-term smoke exposures are quite low. Short-term elevated exposures (i.e., 14 over days to weeks) to carcinogens found in wildfire smoke are also small relative to total lifetime exposures to carcinogens in other, more common combustion sources," according to "Wildfire Smoke: A Guide for Public Health Officials." "For example, epidemiological studies have shown that urban firefighters who are occupationally exposed to smoke over an entire working lifetime are at increased risk of developing lung cancer."
If you experience symptoms, get away from the smoke, EPA says.
So what can you do to protect yourself?
The EPA AirNow website offers these tips:
Dust masks aren't enough! Paper “dust” masks or surgical masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in wildfire smoke. Scarves or bandanas (wet or dry) won’t help, either. Particulate masks known as N-95 or P-100 respirators will help, but they must fit well and be used correctly. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.
If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed - unless it's extremely hot outside. Run your air conditioner, if you have one. Keep the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. Open windows to air out the house when air quality improves. Note: If you don't have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter, such as with relatives or a cleaner air shelter.
Image of young girl using an inhaler
Help keep particle levels inside lower. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. Try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves - and even candles. Don't vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don't smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs, and in the lungs of people around you.
If you have asthma or another lung disease, make sure you follow your healthcare provider’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma action plan. Have at least a five-day supply of medication on hand. Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen.
If you have cardiovascular disease, follow your healthcare provider’s directions and call if your symptoms worsen. If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, dial 9-1-1.