Wildfire Smoke and Your Health

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, chances are you’re affected by this year’s wildfires. Even if there’s no fire burning in close proximity – which, with 500 fires burning in British Columbia alone as of now, is not likely – you’re likely breathing in wildfire smoke.

Exposure to smoke can cause sore eyes, tears, coughing, and a runny nose. If smoke lasts days to weeks – like it has here in British Columbia (as of Aug. 23rd, Metro Vancouver has set a new record of 11 days for continuous air quality advisories) it can leave its mark on our health. Wildfire smoke is a mix of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particles, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, and nitrogen oxides. The dangerous material in wildfire smoke is the small particles, otherwise known as particulates. Fine particles can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and long-term exposure can negatively affect lungs and heart.

While most healthy adults and children recover quickly from smoke exposure, people with sensitivities can experience more severe and chronic symptoms.

Precautionary Steps

  • Limit outdoor activities.
  • Stay inside and keep windows and doors closed. Set air-conditioners to “re-circulate” otherwise the machine will draw in air from the polluted outdoors.  Same goes for being in a car. Keep the windows closed and, if you have a/c, set it re-circulate.
  • Avoid cigarette smoke.
  • If you have room air cleaners with HEPA filters, turn them on.
  • Don’t burn anything including wood stoves, gas stoves, candles, or incense.
  • Drink lots of water.
  • Respirator masks are said to help, but they must be labeled NIOSH, N95 or P100 and fit properly. I purchased a RZ M2 Mask from Windsor Plywood this morning. While the packaging states it is not NIOSH approved, it’s supposed to be good for pollution sized .1 micron or greater. So far, it seems to have helped (at least my smoke-related headache has subsided). 
  • Paper dust masks or bandanas will not help.
  • Some people find comfort in their Himalayan salt lamps. Himalayan pink salt is a natural ionic air purifier that pulls toxins from the environment and neutralizes them. While they may not do much to reduce wildfire particulate in the air, they are reportedly great for removing dust, pollen, cigarette smoke, and other contaminants from the air by way of hygroscopy. Hygroscopy means the salt lamp attracts water molecules from the surrounding environment then absorbs those molecules (as well as any foreign particles they may carry).

Let's all hope this smoke clears up soon. In the meantime, for our British Columbian friends, here’s the Air Quality Index