It was a late-summer evening in western California. I had just finished putting my kids to bed when I noticed an unusual odor filling the room through the open patio door. Something like a burning campfire mixed with smog.
I shut the door, thinking that my neighbors were grilling. It’s probably noting, and I decided to go to bed.
The next day, when I woke up, the sunrise was eerily beautiful, with rich orange colors set against a fog-like haze. I poured myself a cup of coffee and walked outside to admire this beautiful sunrise.
As I stepped outside, I realized that the vibrant fog was actually smoke, and the smell from the night before was getting worse. I went inside and shut the door.
Soon, I realized that the smoke wasn’t coming from a grill but from some of the largest wildfires in California. The smoke from these wildfires would linger over our region for over a week, a time in which the air quality was ranked as some of the worst in the world.
Smoke and health effects
The initial effects caused by wildfire smoke are pretty obvious: sore throat, small coughing, and itchy eyes. These may not seem like much at first, and the effects of wildfire smoke inhalation may clear within a few days. This is if you are in good health and you’re not suffering from any preexisting respiratory conditions.
But what happens when you can’t breathe in clean air for a few days?
To understand what health impact wildfire smoke can have, we need to look at what smoke is composed of. Smoke is made up of microscopic particles that, when inhaled, will reach your lungs. Constant inhalation of wildfire smoke will lead to the irritation and inflammation of your lungs.
If you are a healthy person, not exercising or doing strenuous activities may be enough to protect yourself. In fact, if conditions improve quickly, the effects of poor air quality will clear up rather fast.
But for those dealing with a reduced lung capacity, like children or the elderly, there are a number of complications that may appear after prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke. Complications such as bronchitis, asthma, and even an increase in blood clots are often caused by smoke inhalation.
It was also observed that long-term exposure to smoke and poor air quality leads to long-lasting effects such as having a compromised immune system or developing heart arrhythmia.
If you have trouble breathing a few days after being exposed to wildfire smoke, I advise you to seek professional medical aid.
Other, less known effects of wildfires
While we know that exposure to wildfire smoke can impact your health, there are some other dangers we are unaware of. Wildfires, besides razing forests to the ground, also destroy homes and various other properties. All the burned paint, electronics, plastics, and other materials contain toxins that become airborne.
While we still don’t have enough data regarding the dangers of inhaling these toxic particles, we do know how harmful some of these substances are to breathe.
Smoke containing toxic particles can be deadly, and there have been reported cases all over the world of wildfire smoke or smog containing trapped pollution from various factory plants killing people and causing severe respiratory problems that lasted for years.
How to secure your home
One of the first things you can do to avoid inhaling wildfire smoke is to shut all your doors and windows. Depending on how the wind blows and how long the smoke lasts, you may have a window of one-two hours a day in which you can air out your home.
However, if the smoke lingers for a week or more, there are some additional steps you need to consider to secure your home. First, you would have to identify other air pollution sources in your home and avoid using them.
Such sources can be your average gas or wood-burning stove but also your vacuum. Yes, you read that right, and vacuuming is strongly discouraged during a wildfire smoke event since your vacuum can kick dangerous smoke particles back up into the air.
Second, you need to find ways to purify the air in your home. Like many families out there, I bought an air purifier for my home. In fact, I got one for each room of the house since I realized after thorough research that smoke particles would linger around even after the wildfire was contained.
For my household, we got the Sharp Plasmacluster filters since after reading various reviews and doing hours of research, I figured out these are the best on the market price/quality wise. I highly recommend them.
These air filters work by forcing the air inside a room through a HEPA filter. This filter is made of interwoven glass fibers encased in paper and work similarly to a sieve catching both large and small particles.
There are various air purifiers on the market, and they have air monitors preinstalled so that you can see how good or bad the air in the room is. Also, a quality air-purifier can clear out a small room in 20 minutes or less.
Some homes have an HVAC system, and these may already have an air filter installed. Even so, there are some things you need to be aware of, even if you have an HVAC system with a preinstalled air filter.
The first and most obvious thing is that if you haven’t changed those filters recently (within the last 5-6 months), the filter may work at a lower capacity filtering out fewer pollution particles.
The second is that such systems are designed to operate in open environments with ventilation of the outdoor air. This means that it will push air from outside the home in and not recirculate the air from inside the room.
That being said, it would be better if you could install a dedicated air purifier in each room where people can be exposed to poor air quality.
Also, it should be obvious that you need to reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke or poor air as much as possible. Stay inside and keep the air filters running. Don’t go out unless you have to.
There are plants that feed us, plants that heal us, and plants that protect us from pests and insects, but there are also plants that can purify the air. These air-purifying plants can become a good addition to the living areas inside your home.
Some of these plants can clean the air in our homes and act as anti-pollutants. These houseplants can reduce components of indoor air pollution, even volatile organic compounds such as benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, and xylene. These air purifying plants also reduce airborne microbes and increase humidity.
Researchers recommend having at least 15 average-sized air purifying survival plants in a house or an apartment of 1800 square feet to have good air quality and be in good health.
If you want to research this topic, even more, start with the following plants: Arrowhead Plant (Syngonium podophyllum), Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum), Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum), and Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina).
Also, check this article covering the topic of air-purifying plants:
It goes without saying that being trapped in your home for a week or longer can be difficult for some folks. I can tell you from experience that it’s even harder if you have toddlers.
If you have to head out, you need to limit exposure to poor air, and this means wearing a mask. Some may use simple cloth face masks or a wet bandana as means of protection. However, these do not reduce the risks of wildfire smoke inhalation.
Gas masks may be a little more efficient, but even those are not an effective long-term solution since the size of smoke particles, which is typically 1 micrometer, will rapidly clog their filters.
If you have some N95 masks you bought when the pandemic was in full swing, it’s better to use them since they can filter most of the particles of wildfire smoke.
If you are using your vehicle when there’s smoke outside, turn off the ventilation system and keep windows shut, or ensure cars are equipped with a HEPA cabin air filter. Do not run the air conditioning using the recirculation setting with windows closed.
If a wildfire is ravaging your state and you fear it may soon reach your region, it would make sense to bug out and head to safety. However, if there’s no danger to your household, there are still some decisions you need to make.
If there are people with a reduced lung capacity or a compromised immune system in your family, the best bet would be to move them to a location where air quality won’t become a problem. You can ask friends and relatives to take the children or the elderly in for a week or two until things return to normal.
It may not be a convenient solution, but it’s the best one you may have to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke and polluted air.
The unknowns still remain
An event causing smoke has many unknowns, and these are perhaps the toughest things to figure out.
How long will the event last?
How long until the smoke clears?
How dangerous is the smoke for my health?
What toxic particles are in the smoke?
These are questions for which finding the proper answer is quite difficult, and even the local authorities may not have the answers you are looking for.
The suggestions in this article should be common sense for those living in areas where wildfires occur, and they should be better prepared the next time a wildfire alert is issued.
In some cases, fortifying your home and making sure the air inside is properly filtered may be the preferred solution. For others, heading out to a location where the air isn’t compromised is perhaps a better option. Either way, you should learn how dangerous can wildfire smoke can be to human health and how to protect your family from the toxic air.
This article was submitted by Andrew Peters.
Other Useful Resources: