By mid-August, more than 6 million acres have burned across the United States due to wildfires. This has led many to raise questions about health risks that are associated with the smoke produced from blazes of this magnitude. Unfortunately, all that haze can have some real and lasting effects on health. Here are a few things you should know about how wildfire smoke might be hurting you and how you can take preventative steps to diminish the risks.
1. Wildfire smoke can cause a range of health issues
According to the CDC, wildfire smoke can result in a range of negative health concerns, including irritation of the respiratory system, worsening of chronic heart and lung conditions such as asthma, as well as damage to eyes. The symptoms are known to be more of a concern in certain at-risk groups (see No. 5 below).
2. Smoke particles are tiny
Smoke moves in the form of "fine particles," which are 2.5 microns in diameter or less. Their tiny size is one reason why smoke particles can be so dangerous and why they can be so hard to avoid. For example, most common masks aren't effective at keeping the smoke particles out.
3. The visibility test is a good way to determine risk
The level of visibility in a spot can help one determine how many smoke particles are in the air. This can vary by location, but one general rule is the 5-mile limit. This means that if visibility is limited to less than 5 miles in the area, the amount of smoke in the air has reached a dangerous level.
4. Smoke particles can travel far
Researchers have determined that one reason smoke particles can travel so far is because they tend to travel at a very high altitude. This lets them drift long distances before settling and explains why places like Colorado can see a haze from fires on the West Coast.
5. Certain groups are more at risk
According to the CDC, several groups are more prone to experience negative health effects of wildfire smoke. People with pre-existing conditions like heart disease or lung disease are more susceptible. Other groups include children and the elderly. It's also been said that active adults are more susceptible if active during dangerous conditions.
6. Precautions can be taken
If it's hazy in your area due to wildfires, you can take preventative steps to help diminish the health risks. There's a long list of things you can do, but a few things include limiting activities like candle burning that may cause indoor pollution, keeping windows and doors shut to keep the inside air clean, avoiding strenuous outdoor activities that cause heavy breathing, and staying up-to-date with local air quality reports. While some assume that wearing a mask will help, only certain types of masks will block out particles as small as smoke – this does not include the common dust mask.