Throughout much of the state air quality is poor, and many people are suffering the effects of living and working in the smoke from the wildfires. Many of you are working outdoors rescuing or caring for wildlife at rehabilitation centers, or assisting with animals impacted directly by the fires. OSPR’s industrial hygienist, Jeff Westervelt, compiled some information on the effects of smoke and what we can do to protect ourselves while living and working in areas impacted by smoke from the wildfires. We wanted to share that with all of you. Thank you for all the work that you do. Be safe.
Much like crude oil, smoke is a complex mixture of compounds that can number in the thousands. However, the particulate matter from wildfire smoke is the greatest concern for us members of the general public. Particulate matter is a generic term for particles suspended in the air, and they can be a mixture of both solid particles and liquid. Also, the size of the particles affects their potential health hazard. Particles larger than 10 micrometers do not usually reach the lungs, but can still irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. (For purposes of comparison, a human hair is about 60 to 75 micrometers in diameter.) Smaller particles however, also known as PM2.5, can be inhaled deep into our lungs, and typically represent a greater health concern than larger particles.
It’s especially important for you to pay attention to local air quality reports during a period of heavy smoke if you are:
- a person with heart or lung disease, emphysema or asthma.
- an older adult.
- caring for children, including teenagers, because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they’re more likely to be active outdoors.
- a person with diabetes, because you are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease.
- a pregnant woman, because there could be potential health effects for both you and the developing fetus.
It’s important to do what you can to limit your exposure to smoke, especially if you are at increased risk for particle-related effects. 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 respirators, such as N-95, R-95 or P-100 respirators will help, but they must fit well and be used correctly. The PM2.5 particles can get through the gaps the hair creates between the respirator and your face, so those of you with facial hair will not be able to achieve the seal these respirators need to offer protection.
Try to keep particle levels inside your home lower too. 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 and candles. Even vacuuming can stir up particles already inside your home.
So, now you’re thinking, what’s the hazard from the smoke right now, and what can I do to protect myself, right? To help answer these questions, I have some resources for you.
This first link is to the California Smoke Blog. It has a ton of information on smoke, current air quality, health effects, and protective measures. On the right side banner of the home screen you’ll also find links to get air quality information for locations throughout California. To better understand what the air quality numbers found there mean, and what protective actions you should take, I’ve attached an air quality activity guide to this email. (One thing I’d also like to point out is some people have been looking at numbers from the purple air site. The purple air monitors are available for “home enthusiasts”, and don’t necessarily have the kind of accuracy obtained and provided by Sac Metro AQMD, US EPA, the Air Resources Board, etc. So, stick with the profession numbers folks.)
Anyway, here’s the link:
This next link is to the US EPA air quality site, Airnow: https://www.airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=airnow.main
The third link I have for you is to the CDC wildfire smoke page: