Wildfire smoke: Not just an annoyance
Around 400 wildfires are active north of the border, and half of them are considered "out of control." From January to early June, close to 10 million acres of Canadian woodland has burnt to the ground. Compare it to the ten-year average of 6.8 million acres throughout an entire year, and you know that 2023 is going to break records.
A high-pressure front that has lingered over Canada for weeks has brought higher temperatures and less rainfall to large areas. The usual spring snow-melt occurred early, which means the soil dried out before it should have, worsening drought conditions. The end result is a massive number of fires that are more intense than usual and burn longer. A low-pressure front east of the Canadian high is pulling smoke particles more than 10 miles high southward into the U.S. Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic states.
The weather disaster has meant an almost Mars-like atmosphere in places like New York City, where orange skies blocked out both sun and skyscrapers. The situation has worsened to the point that Mayor Eric Adams urged citizens to stay indoors to escape the pollution. New York's air in recent days has compared unfavorably to New Delhi's; indeed, at one point, it was the unhealthiest air on the planet.
PM2.5: WHAT IS IT?
Wildfire smoke is a described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a cocktail of air contaminants, including carbon monoxide, plastics and other synthetics, and trace chemicals and metals. Particulate matter in smoke is tiny, smaller than 2.5 microns, just a fraction of the thickness of a human hair. Particles this size are called PM2.5. They're small enough to reach deep into your lungs, damaging the ability of the air sacs ("alveoli") that absorb oxygen there. It's the equivalent, dependent on the concentration, of smoking 3–11 cigarettes a day.
WHO'S IN DANGER?
Those most at risk for complications from inhaling wildfire smoke include the elderly, children, pregnant women, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular problems, like asthma or heart disease.
The risk also extends to normal, healthy people if the air quality is bad enough. The Air Quality Index is measured in units from 0 to 500. Fifty or less is considered good, while 150 is unhealthy for sensitive groups. Once the Index for your area hits 200, it's very unhealthy. Three hundred is deemed hazardous for the entire population. Now that you know this, you might be surprised that New York City reached 405 on June 7, which was, ironically, Canada Clean Air Day.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF SMOKE-RELATED INJURY
Most people exposed for a limited period of time to wildfire smoke experience minor symptoms, including eye irritation, sore throat, sinus congestion, headache, and fatigue. Effects on the lungs and heart, however, can be serious over time.
Respiratory symptoms might include:
- Increased nasal congestion and phlegm
- Asthma attacks
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pains
- Decreased oxygen levels
Poor air quality also may have consequences for your heart. Those with pre-existing disease can have heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and strokes. Pregnant women can experience higher rates of miscarriage, preterm birth, and stillbirth, as well as shortness of breath due to decreased lung capacity. The immune system can also be affected.
Continued exposure to wildfire smoke will mean more E.R. visits and hospitalizations. In extreme cases, the medical infrastructure could be overwhelmed in some areas.
HOW TO PROTECT AGAINST WILDFIRE SMOKE
The first thing to do if you see or smell smoke in the air is to consult local air quality reports (the U.S. Air Quality Index or AQI). Follow your municipality's health warnings relating to smoke; you're safer if you avoid spending a lot of time outdoors. If you're told to stay inside, keep doors and windows shut.
In hot weather, you may have little choice other than to run the air conditioner. If you do, close the fresh-air intake. Use new HEPA filters throughout your air circulation system, including air purifiers. Indoor pollution, like fireplace or even candle smoke, may contribute to already poor air quality. Of course, avoid smoking cigarettes.
You may notice people wearing masks again to prevent inhaling smoke particles. Unfortunately, standard masks are probably not effective against PM2.5. Consider N95 masks. Yes, I know, the N95 mask turned out to be ineffective against COVID, but COVID viral particles are much smaller than most wildfire smoke particles. Using them can offer a level of protection. The governor of New York has announced that she will make one million N95s available to the general public.
Hopefully, wind currents and weather fronts will eventually eliminate the wildfire smoke tormenting our citizens in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Until then, follow AQI reports and take measures to avoid or, at least, decrease excessive exposure to toxic air.