Helpful tips to protect yourself if you are exposed to smoke from fires

July 26, 2016

Inhalation of smoke from brush fires is dangerous and should be avoided; especially if you have heart and lung diseases like congestive heart failure, asthma or emphysema. When wood and other organic matter burns, a complex mixture of microscopic solid particles, liquid droplets and gases is produced. One of the biggest health concerns related to smoke inhalation comes from fine particles. These microscopic particles sometimes cannot be seen and can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles have been shown to exacerbate chronic heart and lung diseases. “The lungs provide some form of defense from air pollutants, but not 100%. Some fine particles will penetrate deep into the lungs, causing dangerous irritation and inflammation.” – Daryl Banta, MD, medical director, critical care, pulmonary and respiratory services, Huntington Hospital

Here is some advice you should follow if you are exposed to smoke from fires:

Pay attention to local air quality reports. Stay alert to any news coverage or health warnings related to smoke. Also find out if your community reports EPA's Air Quality Index (AQI). The AQI, based on data from local air quality monitors, tells you about the daily air quality in your area and recommends precautions you can take to protect your health. As smoke gets worse, the concentration of particles in the air changes - and so do the steps you should take to protect yourself.

Use visibility guides, where they're available. Not every community has a monitor that measures particle levels in the air. In the western United States, some areas without air quality monitors have developed guidelines to help people estimate the AQI based on how far they can see. Check with your local air quality agency to find out if there's a visibility guide for your area.

Use common sense. If it looks smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it's probably not a good time for your children to play outdoors. If you absolutely have to be outdoors or work outdoors during smoke exposure, use a respiratory mask that is rated to protect against harmful dusts, fumes, vapors or gases.

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 fresh air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. (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.) If you have central air in your home, make sure to change the air filter at least every 6 months.

Help keep particle levels inside lower. When smoke levels are high, 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.

*Adapted from the Environmental Protection Agency with input from Daryl Banta, MD, medical director, critical care, pulmonary and respiratory services, Huntington Hospital

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