We all know that secondhand smoke is bad for your health, but steering clear of smokers is doing little for the lungs of those who live in the Western United States. Air pollution caused by the worst wildfires in history has reached an equally unprecedented level, now more than double what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers hazardous.
The EPA’s air quality index classifies ratings between 201 and 300 as “very unhealthy.” Ratings above 300 are classified as “hazardous.” AQI measurements takes in regions of California affected by wildfires have topped 700.
‘In my experience, the impact of the current fires is unprecedented and exposures may prove dangerous for many people,’ Michael Kleinman of the University of California, Irvine’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Health told Newsweek.
Smoke is creating poor air quality conditions for much of the west coast. Take steps to minimize the health impacts. Stay inside and close windows and doors.Don't rely on cloth face coverings or surgical masks to prevent breathing in wildfire smoke. More: https://t.co/lzg2OC54VY pic.twitter.com/Xo9tehH5xP
— National Weather Service (@NWS) September 11, 2020
The heatwaves that preceded the fires, as well the fires themselves, have been the hottest and most destructive in recent history, exacerbated by the worsening climate crisis. This is a matter of science fact, according to California Governor Gavin Newsom.
“The debate is over around climate change,” Newsom said while in Oroville, one of the communities most impaced by the recent wildfires. “Just come to the state of California, observe it with your own eyes.”
A few of the fires were caused by carelessness and arson, but a vast majority of them were ignited by lightning strikes in extremely dry areas. Newsom said there were about 14,000 dry lightning strikes in three days in the Golden State alone,
By mid-September more than 3 million acres between California, Oregon and Washington states had been devastated by the wildfires. The death toll is currently at 19 but could raise as many of the fires are still not contained.
The western wildfires are so intense that smoke from the blazes is causing atmospheric disturbances thousands of miles away on the East Coast. According to the BBC, “Satellite images showed the smoke being carried to the East Coast by the jet stream – a narrow zone of high-speed winds – across the Mid-Atlantic.”
If you looked up to the sky today, you may have seen a yellow or brown tinge. You were seeing smoke from the fires out W. This GOES-16 visible satellite shows smoke at 25,000 ft, as well as active fires and the busy tropics. We took a photo at our office to show the smoky sky. pic.twitter.com/tAgfomjNNC
— NWS New York NY (@NWSNewYorkNY) September 15, 2020
Those in the path of the fires are urged to evacuate, but even driving out of town may not take people out of the range of the resulting air pollution. The EPA recommends purchasing a portable air cleaner or high-efficiency HVAC Filter and N95 respirator masks to avoid smoke inhalation.
Avoiding air pollution, or any other potential threat to respiratory health, is also important to slowing the spread and impact of COVID-19.
“Multiple studies have shown a correlation between higher levels of pollution in the air and greater spread and severity of Covid-19 cases,” Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, told CNN. “Some studies have also shown that exposure of lung tissue to pollution may increase susceptibility to viral infections.”
Crazy — Smoke from West Coast wildfires seen over the Lincoln Memorial here in Washington DC.
— Mike Valerio (@MikevWUSA) September 14, 2020
The EPA recommends the following actions to reduce smoke exposure where local officials have recommended staying indoors due to high AQI measurements:
- Keep windows and doors closed.
- Use fans and air conditioning to stay cool. If you cannot stay cool, seek shelter elsewhere.
- Reduce the smoke that enters your home.
- If you have an HVAC system with a fresh air intake, set the system to recirculate mode, or close the outdoor intake damper.
- If you have a window air conditioner, close the outdoor air damper. If you cannot close the damper, do not use the window air conditioner. Make sure that the seal between the air conditioner and the window is as tight as possible.
- If you have a portable air conditioner with a single hose, typically vented out of a window, do not use it in smoky conditions. If you have a portable air conditioner with two hoses, make sure that the seal between the window vent kit and the window is as tight as possible.
- Use a portable air cleaner or high-efficiency filter to remove fine particles from the air.
- If you use a portable air cleaner, run it as often as possible on the highest fan speed.
- If you have an HVAC system with a high-efficiency filter installed, run the system’s fan as often as possible to remove particles while the air quality is poor.
- Avoid activities that create more fine particles indoors, including:
- Smoking cigarettes.
- Using gas, propane or wood-burning stoves and furnaces.
- Spraying aerosol products.
- Frying or broiling food.
- Burning candles or incense.
- Vacuuming, unless you use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
- Avoid strenuous activity during smoky times to reduce how much smoke you inhale.
- Create a clean room.
- Have a supply of N95 respirators and learn how to use them.
- Air out your home by opening windows or the fresh air intake on your HVAC system when the air quality improves, even temporarily.
Hundreds of residential homes have already burnt to the ground and the death toll continues to climb. GreaterGood.Org’s disaster response team is answering the call for help, but with resources split between simultaneous hurricane response efforts, critical food and emergency supplies are desperately needed.
We need your help today to provide support for families and pets affected by wildfires along the West Coast. Click the button below to meet that need and make a difference where it matters most.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.