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Keeping an Eye on the Sky

What You Need to Know About Poor Air Quality

by Mary Beth TeSelle, Special to The Union
Our region has experienced unhealthy air quality in recent weeks due to nearby wildfires. Experts say when the air reaches unhealthy levels, cloth masks do not provide any protection from the dangerous particles due to their microscopic size.

As the Dixie and Caldor fires continue to burn a path across hundreds of thousands of acres in North California, our thoughts continue to be with the firefighters battling the blazes and all of the residents affected by them.

Closer to home, we are left to cope with an unpleasant – and potentially unhealthy – side effect of the fires: poor air quality.

Wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from those fine particles, which can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases.



Prolonged exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.

The best way to know when the air outdoors is becoming hazardous is by monitoring the AQI – the Air Quality Index, the system used to warn the public when air pollution is dangerous.



The AQI tracks ozone (smog) and particle pollution (tiny particles from ash, power plants and factories, vehicle exhaust, soil dust, pollen, and other pollution), as well as other widespread air pollutants.

While poor air quality can harm anyone, it can be dangerous for people with compromised lungs or lungs that aren’t fully developed, including children and teens, people with asthma and other lung diseases, and anyone over 65. In addition, people who exercise or work outdoors and people who have diabetes or heart disease need to pay special attention to the air quality.

Typically, the people in these high-risk groups are the first ones to feel the effects of poor air quality. Symptoms can include dryness and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin; headache; fatigue; shortness of breath; hypersensitivity and allergies; sinus congestion; coughing and sneezing; and dizziness.

When monitoring AQI levels, in general anything under 100 is considered safe for most people to exert themselves outdoors. When the level reaches 150, experts recommend that people at risk limit their exertion outdoors. At 200 and above, everyone should limit their exertion. Over 300, and the experts say everyone should avoid all outdoor activity.

While cloth face coverings have become commonplace due to the pandemic, the American Lung Association says they actually won’t help you when it comes to poor air quality due to a wildfire. They allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with an N-95 or N-100 filter will filter out the damaging fine particles, but they require a very precise fit, are not made for children and are difficult for people with lung disease to use.

So, what can you do to protect yourself and your family when the air quality gets bad? First off, protect your home. Keep your windows closed, open doors as briefly as possible, and shut your fireplace damper.

It’s also important to keep an eye on the air filters in your home’s HVAC unit. Change more frequently during fire season and if the air is bad in your neighborhood for more than a couple days, consider changing it even sooner.

If you have cracks in door frames or elsewhere where smoky air may sneak in, consider placing a damp towel in the opening.

You may also consider a household air filtering device with a HEPA filter. These can be purchased online or at most hardware stores and can help to clean the air in bedrooms, family rooms, or wherever your family spends the most time.

When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends avoiding using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, and even candles. The EPA also advises against vacuuming, which can stir 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.

For people who work or exercise outdoors, keeping an eye on the AQI level is important right now, even when it seems sunny outdoors. The ALA recommends that everyone avoid exercising outdoors when pollution levels are high (anything above 150-200). They also encourage parents to limit the amount of time your child spends playing outdoors if the air quality is unhealthy.

A good rule of thumb, according to the experts, is if you can smell the smoke, you should stay indoors.

 


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