Wildfires and air quality: What this smoke means for your health
The ongoing wildfires have spread a haze across much of the state. At times, the smoke has been so thick that visibility has dropped to near zero. But all of that smoke in the atmosphere is doing more than just blotting out our blue skies and dropping visibility — it’s bad for our health.
Smoke is made up of a mixture of gasses and fine particles released when materials burn. Those particles can range from pieces of ash big enough to see to microscopic in size, which are the most harmful.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve all felt the effects of these tiny particles — runny nose, burning eyes, dry throat, coughing and difficulty breathing. Even when air quality isn’t harmful enough to affect the entire population, people with chronic heart or lung disease may still feel the impact.
Because the particles in the atmosphere that make wildfire smoke harmful are tiny, many options for keeping smoke out of your lungs might not be helping.
Dust masks don’t offer a small enough filter or tight enough seal to stop the microscopic particles from entering your lungs. Scarves and bandanas don’t quite get the job done either, even when wet.
Masks labelled N-95 or P-100 should help, but they must fit correctly and be used properly. You should be able to find them at hardware stores or online.
If the air outside is causing irritation, it’s best to stay indoors. Air filters in your home typically do a good job of filtering out harmful particles, as long as they are changed regularly. Keeping the windows and doors shut can be the hard part, especially in our recent heat wave, but that can also help.
Some things you can avoid at home: vacuuming, burning candles and even smoking cigarettes. Vacuuming can kick up more debris into the air, making symptoms worse. Also, even the smallest amount of smoke can make a big difference when air quality is low. As a reminder, there are multiple burn bans in place across the state, so making sure to follow those rules is also important.
Even taking the proper precautions, fine particles can build up indoors. If you have any health concerns, you should speak to a medical professional to figure out a plan that works for you.
When it comes to our four-legged friends, Laura Atwood with Anchorage Animal Care and Control said there are a few general things you can do to keep them safe from the heat and smoke.
• Don't exercise pets in the heat of the day
• Don't take them everywhere in the car with you while temperatures are high
• Be extra aware of older animals or those who have special health needs
• Pay attention to how much time your pets are spending outside
If owners are worried about the effects of smoke on their pets, they should consult with their veterinarian. Overall, use common sense, she said.
"If [the heat and smoke] is bothering you, it's probably bothering them," Atwood said.
For the most up-to-date air quality information, you can visit the Environmental Protection Agency's website AirNow.gov.
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