Several wildfires in California, Colorado and other states have been visible for residents across the country. With each smoky day, more parts of the U.S. are exposed to high concentrations of unhealthy air. The Center for Disease Control reports smoke has reached the air in 44 states.
Smoke was particularly prominent in June 2016, when conditions in the area were very similar to today. More than 800 million people — roughly one-third of the entire population of the U.S. — live in areas that are at risk of unhealthy air because of wildfires, according to the EPA. That exposure can affect your health in several ways.
Using a device called a personal air monitor, you can measure the concentration of unhealthy or unhealthy-for-sensitive-groups particulate matter in the air near you. The device uses a doppler radar to detect the relative amount of particles on the surface of the air near you. Such measuring devices can also test for ozone and poisonous chemicals.
Other ways you can stay informed include watching NBC or CBS news for wildfires and smoke updates and keeping up with websites like Groundswell that are continuously monitoring wildfire conditions.
How Much Smoke is In The Air?
The EPA lists airborne particulate matter (including soot, soot nanoparticles and sulfate) as an “unhealthy” pollutant or a “very unhealthy” pollutant on federal health air quality maps. While levels vary from day to day, wind direction and weather conditions can affect air quality, often leaving red and yellow air-quality warnings in place.
A single small particle can contain millions of fibers, said Moh-Yuan Ja, a master’s student in the University of Southern California’s Rose Sjostrom Dental Medicine program.
“Small particles are the smallest that can easily penetrate your lungs and all the way into your bloodstream,” Ja said.
Thick soot particles that remain suspended in the air create large, thick ground-level smoke plumes that can linger for days.
What Is Smoke And How Dangerous Is It?
High levels of toxic particulate matter can contribute to illness and illness-related deaths. Asthma, lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease and diabetes can all increase in people exposed to wildfire smoke.
Some people with asthma have breathing problems that are worsened by heavy smoke. “Smoke can trigger asthma attacks in those who have an asthma or COPD trigger,” said Len Siegel, M.D., chief of dermatology at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Exposure to higher levels of smoke also increases the risk of premature death.
Milders in smoke, such as particulate matter and ozone, are considered “unhealthy” or “very unhealthy” by the EPA. Short-term exposure to soot and fine particulate matter has been linked to heart attack, high blood pressure and respiratory symptoms. High levels of ozone can affect your heart and lungs, too.
What can I Do?
Limit your outdoor activity. Avoid going to play, exercise, or exercise and/or use gym equipment outdoors when smoke is high. Avoid idling, which lets ground-level particles settle in your car, and take a quick shower before you go outside. Breathe through a filter before you leave your home. Try in-home air filters to clean up harmful particles in the air around you.
How do I know if I have air pollution problems?
The EPA works with health officials to investigate specific air quality issues in communities across the country. Communities can decide whether to submit to an EPA investigation and to have potentially health-related policies implemented to curb high levels of air pollution.
The EPA has made the following recommendations to protect you from air pollution:
Be careful when you go outdoors, especially at midday.
Use these simple tricks to control the wind and keep smoke away from your home.
If your air quality starts to look particularly bad, you should contact your local health department or health care provider to alert them of the problem.